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Barker's Island advocate dies

Jack Culley, who worked to promote Barker's Island, died Sunday at his Florida home. (Photo from Kathy Culley)

For decades, Jack R. Culley has been a spokesman and advocate for Barker's Island Marina and the island as a whole.

"I think we all identify Barker's Island as the jewel of our city," said Superior Finance Director Jean Vito. "And I think his contribution ... is an extremely important part of that impression people have."

Culley, 82, died Sunday in the St. Petersburg, Fla., home where he spent his winters.

Friends, family and business associates remember a man who always had a positive outlook and passion that helped shape Barker's Island into what it is today.

"We'll all miss him, but he left such a mark around here, we'll never forget him," said Toby Marcovich, a longtime friend and Superior attorney.

In addition to founding Sailboats Inc., which has managed Superior's marina since it opened 32 years ago, Culley was a partner and driving force behind Barker's Island Housing Development Corp., which developed townhouses on the southeast end of the island.

"In working with Jack, he took every single opportunity to educate us on the needs of the marina," said former Mayor Dave Ross. Ross recalled a time when floats on the docks were failing. To impress upon city officials the need to make repairs, Culley invited Ross and Vito to the marina to experience the problem. Ross laughed, remembering the walk on the docks that day.

Vito said the docks sank to water level, which prompted city officials to reinvest marina revenue to fix the problem.

Growing the business at the marina was a priority for Culley, as was protecting the integrity of the land around it to maintain room for growth. In 2005, Culley advocated for an indoor boat storage facility, which promptly netted better gains for the marina and city than anticipated.

Mayor Bruce Hagen, who served as the city's mayor from 1975-87, remembers writing for grant money to build the marina. Then, he said, critics warned the marina would never operate without a city subsidy.

It was actually the marina, under Culley's management, that subsidized the city budget.

The marina is a major revenue source for the city, Vito said. She said Culley was a good negotiator when the city renewed the lease with Sailboats Inc. in 2004, but it was also important to Culley to generate revenue for the city.

Marina Manager Joe Radtke, who has worked for Sailboats Inc. since 1980, said the marina operation has paid the city $6.8 million in lease payments, something that made Culley proud.

Culley's venture into the sailing trade was a passion, said his son, Jack Culley, president of Sailboats Inc., which will continue to operate marinas in Superior and Knife River.

The younger Culley said it was "a question of serendipity" that took his father's career from a vice president of marketing in the refrigerated foods division of Pillsbury in Minneapolis to a livelihood built on his passion for sailing.

Culley's son said the business started in 1968, when his father started Minnesota Trails and Cruise.

"He had an interest in sailing for a long time," the younger Culley said. "I remember as a kid going on Lake Minnetonka and Prior Lake on weekends and sailing. He had an interest in sailing and developed it into a business on a part-time basis."

At the time, the elder Culley was selling smaller, trailer-ready sailboats.

By 1970, the business had grown to the point that Culley gave up his job with Pillsbury and operated Minnesota Trail and Cruise full-time. It was then that he renamed it Sailboats Inc. Back then, the company was based in Excelsior, Minn.

In 1973, Culley said his father was participating in a regatta at the Lake of the Woods International Sailing Association when he met a representative for another line of boats he could sell. Though Culley initially sold the smaller end of the line, he was introduced to the marina community in Bayfield with the delivery of one of the company's larger boats. Culley subsequently opened an office in Bayfield, his son said, and gained experience with operating a marina there.

"In, 1976, Port Superior, which is a marina in Bayfield, became available for a temporary management contract," Culley said. "The owner had defaulted, and they were looking for someone to run it." He said his dad ran the marina for two years until the bank was successful in finding a buyer.

When the city of Superior sought proposals nationwide to find a manager for its newly constructed marina, the elder Culley submitted a proposal.

"Jack was by far the best candidate," Hagen said. "His vision was part of the reason the marina has been successful."

From heated debate over whether the island's former bird sanctuary should be developed for townhouses in the 1980s to heated debate over the density of development 20 years later, Ross said Culley's vision for Superior's jewel was spot-on.

Culley fought fiercely when a housing development that called for 24 townhouses and 37 condominium units on four acres near the marina threatened to crowd the island and eliminate space for marina expansion.

"He won the day because his argument made sense," said Ross, who advocated for the dense development. In the end, Culley's proposal for six more homes on large lots prevailed.

"He fought for keeping consistency on Barker's Island. ... Looking back at some of those proposals, I'm glad Jack prevailed," Ross said.

And Culley's vision for the island remains intact with his business partners in Barker's Island Housing Development Corp., architect John "Jack" Ivey Thomas and contractor Ron Johnson of Johnson Wilson Construction.

While the development they planned in 2010 has been on hold because of the economic and housing slump, Thomas and Johnson say their "wonderful partner" has left them with a desire to fulfill Culley's vision.

A celebration of life is planned for later this summer in the Duluth-Superior area.

"He's going to be dearly missed," Hagen said.