As waves kiss the docks and the days grow milder, eager boaters have been plying the waters from the Portage marina since April 1, the marina’s official opening for the season.

Now work on a master plan for a more user-friendly facility through repairs, upgrades, and new construction is under way.

The plan is intended to make the experience at the Sammie L. Maletta Public Marina more enjoyable for those who navigate, fish, or simply enjoy being at the waterfront.

The marina has been popular since it opened 23 years ago, said Harbormaster Barb Lusco. “You’d be surprised at the amount of people who come here during winter months to look for a slip and pay fees or to fish along the waterway,” she said.

The marina offers heated and air-conditioned boathouses, picnic tables with umbrellas, grills, a laundry room, and a small ship’s store with snacks, soft drinks and ice. It partners in a life jacket loaner program for kids.

But improvements and expansion of facilities at the marina are needed, said Lusco. The master plan, announced in 2017, includes five phases of one to five years each.

Phase I has begun with docks being replaced as the flotation devices underneath reach their normal lifespan of 20-25 years. “That’s a major repair and necessary. Without docks, there’s no marina,” said Lusco. Other items in Phase I include lighting replacements; a new roof; ADA improvements for people with disabilities; a fishing station; and seawall repair.

“We’re creating a bioswale to catch rainwater from pavement areas before it goes down to the seawall and corrodes that further,” said Lusco. Completion of the bioswale that will filter silt and pollution from the parking lot runoff is expected by the end of this summer. Though restrooms and all walkways have been ADA-compliant since the ’80s and ’90s and two handicap lift devices are in place to help people onto a vessel, “We’re working on becoming more ADA-compliant as the need arises,” Lusco said.

The master plan is a guide for the next 20 years, with a total cost estimate of $11.2 million. “The plan is really a wish list. It would be a whole new marina, and how much of that we can do depends on the funding we can get,” said Lusco. The marina is funded by dock and launching fees, which with additional funding sources, are paying for some elements of Phase I.

Bob “Van” Lente, who’s been using the marina just shy of 20 years, lives in Palos Park, Ill., and has a second home in Grand Haven, Mich., so Portage is a central docking location. It’s also great for fishing, he says, and that’s a big draw. He docks his 33-foot Sea Ray boat with a fishing boat alongside.

“You have access to some good salmon fishing here,” says Lente, who says he caught king salmon in March. “The coho here in the spring is excellent, along with smallies (smallmouth bass) and perch.”

Lente said he likes the plan for a fish cleaning station. “I think it would bring fishermen to the marina, for a $10 launch fee. It might bring in slip holders for the same reason.”

Lente, a retired optometrist, says he’s at the marina two to four days every week from April 1 to the official closing Oct. 1. “The amenities are there, and everything seems to work. They added a lot of things to the ship store for fishing, the staff is great, very friendly and knowledgeable, the grounds are very clean.

Lusco said 75 percent of slip holders are from Indiana; 25 percent are from Illinois. “Because it’s a smaller marina and (the slip holders) have friends, it’s almost like one big happy family.”

 But the marina's intimate size could put other items on the “wish list” out of reach.   Maletta marina has 214 slips for boats as compared to 900-plus each in Hammond and Michigan City marina. So Maletta doesn't qualify for the bonds needed to take on some projects such as higher navigation clearances for larger boats, Lusco said.

The marina accommodates boats up to 45 to 46 feet. “Most other marinas (in the area) can’t accept the larger boats either,” said Lusco, who notes that water depth poses another challenge. Though high now, it does drop 4 to 6 feet. Raising bridges to accommodate larger boats would also involve  NIPSCO, area railroads and steel mills.