By JOHN HOWELL
Unique in the northeast, the combined properties of a marina, fuel dock, outdoor restaurant with swimming pool, indoor restaurant that can accommodate 800 guests and a 9-hole …
Unique in the northeast, the combined properties of a marina, fuel dock, outdoor restaurant with swimming pool, indoor restaurant that can accommodate 800 guests and a 9-hole public golf course that make up Harbor Lights on Warwick Neck has been sold to the Washington DC-based Monument Marine Group.
Months in the making, the deal closed Friday, said Joe Noel, who spoke for the family-owned business that started when his father, former Governor Philip W. Noel, became a partner in the marina in 1976. According to land records, two asset sales were recorded on Friday in City Hall. They show the marina sold for $3,175,000 and that Harbor View Holdings sold the golf course for $2,600,000.
Noel said Monument, and operating partner Oasis Marina Management, is “keeping everybody” and that the long range plan is to expand the current business. He dispelled talk that the, more than 70- acre, property was being eyed for the development of condominiums as was proposed more than 15 years ago. Purely from a business standpoint, Noel said the development of condos won’t make financial sense given the cost of the property and the current return on operations.
Monument wasn’t the only suitor for Harbor View. Noel said more than one other company was interested in the property. Safe Harbor has acquired multiple Rhode Island marinas, many of them in Warwick, and had approached Noel, but he said he wouldn’t sell to them.
“I wasn’t into seeing a monopoly in Warwick Cove,” he said.
Noel, 64, who has operated 17 different companies, many tied to the oil business with his father, bought into the marina when his father’s partners Ted Wheeler and Leo Martin stepped out. Eleven years ago when the golf club was put on the market, the Noels envisioned the opportunity of connecting golf club facilities with the marina. They knew it would require a substantial investment on Joe’s part, who would be overseeing the operation and building a food and beverage team. He found that especially challenging as the year-round staff for the operation mushrooms from about 18 to 100 in the summer.
“There’s a very short window to train and set up,” he explained.
Even before the deal was inked and Noel confirmed talks were ongoing, he was talking of how facilities could be expanded to grow the business. He credits his father with a key to Harbor Lights’ success and its future potential – the clearing of about three acres of undergrowth and trees that opened the view of the cove and Greenwich Bay. The proposal that came before the Coastal Resources Management Council was opposed by Save the Bay as well as other environmental groups and the Department of Environmental Management. Joe credits CRMC with the foresight of understanding what opening the view could bring to the public and the business. At the same time Harbor Lights agreed to limit the expansion of the marina deeper into the cove with the granting of a conservation easement for about 11 acres of marshland.
“That’s all dad,” Noel said.
In a phone call from his Florida residence, Phil Noel recalled discussions with his son before purchasing the golf course. He said Joe estimated it would take four years to make the club and its deteriorating clubhouse profitable. Phil told him to double that estimate. As it turned out the father was right. The clubhouse was in violation of numerous building codes and a wooden deck overlooking the course was rotting out. The deck was ripped out and the land beneath the clubhouse excavated enabling space for a lounge and a pro shop that was later moved to a separate building that the Noels built. It wasn’t the only addition to the property. Closer to the marina they added a swimming pool and Tiki Bar with a view down Narragansett Bay, the Jamestown Bridge on the horizon. Closer to the clubhouse they added Par & Tackle, an outdoor bar and restaurant and the pro shop previously housed in the clubhouse.
Phil Noel can think of no better place to be on a hot summer day. “The prevailing wind is from the southwest and it’s always ten degrees cooler there.”
The bar and wooden structures designed for outdoor weddings, Phil said, were constructed from wood that won’t rot – “as good as steel” – that he transported here from property he owns in Louisiana with trucks from his oil operations. Phil said the financial picture was turning around with the booking of weddings and other events when the pandemic hit. Bookings were canceled. Events couldn’t be held. While outdoor sports and golf gained in popularity in the wake of the shutdown, restrictions limiting groups and one golfer per cart stretched resources and limited profitability. Joe said he kept all of his full time staff aboard – “We’ve built a beautiful team” - and that PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) federal funds were invested into the operation. He says the club has bounced back with the booking of 85 weddings and more than 150 events this year. He’s also looking ahead although the Noels won’t be playing a role in those developments. He said the club has the space for regular clambakes – it currently hosts one a year. Noel also sees an opportunity coming out of the pandemic and the shift from corporate offices to at home work. He envisions a demand for corporations to bring workers together for work sessions and retreats. This would likely require some rearranging with golf scheduling, but Noel thinks that’s manageable.
Such long range vision seems to be a Noel characteristic.
With remarkable clarity and recollection of dates and names, Phil recalled his early involvement with the marina soon after graduating from law school and opening his practice in the 1950s. He said John Harrington and Leo Martin had their eyes on the marina that had slips for ten boats and a yard full of wooden boats that had been to rot shoved into different corners of the property.
“Remember that was before they had fiberglass (boats),” Phil said. It was a mess.
Phil helped track down the owner of the property and managed the sale to Harrington and Martin. He was also instrumental in bringing Ted Wheeler into the group when Harrington sold. It turned out to be a good mix of talents. Martin was a welder and great at building. Wheeler knows boats and the water and Phil not only once a quahogger and with knowledge of the bay but a young attorney who went on to become a councilman, mayor and governor.
In order to expand the marina, the trio realized they needed the ability to haul large boats. Phil said he designed a bay for the work and gained the necessary approvals to go ahead and build it. But the bay needed a travel lift. They found a used one in a Newport boat yard perfect for the job, however, to get it to Warwick would cost $5,000 to have it dismantled and trucked to the site. Wheeler located a crane barge that Phil estimated to be at least 80 feet long with a freeboard of about 15 feet. After Martin welded cross pipes to strengthen the travel lift, the crane hoisted the device on to the barge deck …”it looked like a toy”….and Wheeler towed the barge to Warwick Cove with his 40 foot, “that also looked like a toy.”
They planned the transport for a moon high tide, but even then the massive barge ran aground before the crane could lift the travel lift to dry ground, so they dropped it in the shallows and drove it ashore. The supporting pipes were removed, but they didn’t go to waste, Phil recalls. Martin used them as a chimney for a stove used to burn the wooden boats that littered the property.
An axiom by which Joe has run the business “our potential is limited by inspiration, capital and ability to execute,” he feels applies to the new owners. He believes the opportunity is there and Monument recognizes that. He said the timing was right for the sale and for new owners to step in.
He said his father has gifted his ownership to his children, he and his three sisters, Linda, Lorie and Joanne are the beneficiaries. Joe’s wife, Donita, bought into the club 11 years ago. Joe credits Donita and his sister Lorie as playing roles in the success of the business with the redesign of the clubhouse.
In a release, Tom Wood, Managing Director of Monument Marine Group said the acquisition fits into “its growing portfolio of best-in-class properties, fulfilling our objective to establish a presence in the strong Rhode Island boating market while continuing our expansion on the east coast of the United States.”
In a statement Kenneth Svendsen, Chief Executive Officer of Oasis Marinas said, “With our track record for industry-leading innovation, we intend to build on the cherished legacy that the Noel Family has created while enhancing further the dining and social options that have made Harbor Lights Marina a true destination for boaters and visitors from across New England and beyond.”
Lars Kristiansen, Vice President of Food and Beverage at Oasis Marinas will be overseeing the Food & Beverage service offerings at Harbor Lights. Lars has over 25 years of experience in the hospitality industry and experience economy.
Joe said the family takes pride in how it has developed the property. He said people tell him how much they love the place and he feels the establishment has benefited the community where he grew up.
“This is a kind of family legacy,” he said.
Phil is practical. With “eight banks” – eight sources of income to balance daily – he said running Harbor Lights is complicated. “It’s a handful.”
“I think it (the sale) was the right thing to do.”
There’s a tinge of regret.
“I put so much into it, it was a bit of sadness to let it go… it was the right decision,” he said.
Phil said he will be keeping his boat at Harbor Lights this summer, but “just for the season.”