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Cape Lookout Reviewing Bids for Passenger Ferry Service

In less than a month, Cape Lookout National Seashore is expected to announce the winning bid for a contract to be the sole operator for passenger ferry service to the park.  We explore the ramifications of that plan and talk to the Park Superintendent about how the new ferry service would be implemented. 

Every year, approximately 75 thousand people visit North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore.  Until now, the only way to access the barrier islands is by independently owned passenger ferry operators that shuttle visitors back and forth on skiff type boats with outboard motors.  But a new plan to consolidate those ferries down to one company may put those small ferry operators in Carteret County out of businesses.

"Not one person out of all the hundreds of people who I've spoken to about it believes it's a good thing.  Most of them say that's ridiculous, what are they thinking?"

Currently, seven ferry services are authorized to take passengers to Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.  Those ferry passenger businesses operate through commercial use authorizations and receive an annual permit from the Park Service at a cost of $250 per year. 

Back in 1998, the Concessions Improvement Act was passed.  It directed the Park Service to use concession contracts to authorize commercial services.  Steve Bishop, the owner of Island Ferry Adventures in Beaufort says he saw the new mandate for a single ferry service coming.

“They told us ever since I got in this business twenty years ago that they were intending to put this to bid for one contract and it just drug on and drug on and I think everyone thought it would never happen.  And now it appears it will because they came out with the prospectus and people had bid on it.”

According to Cape Lookout National Seashore Park Superintendent Patrick Kenney, officials are now in the process of reviewing bids for the contract.

“We bring together an independent panel of National Park Service folks that are familiar with commercial services and they evaluate the proposals from the bidders against a set of criteria that were laid out in what’s called the prospectus which is what went out to the bidders.  That evaluation is winding down.”

Currently, seven passenger ferry businesses operate out of Harkers Island, Beaufort and Morehead City.  Under the new plan, sites in downtown Beaufort and Harkers Island have been selected, and construction or renovation of facilities are planned for these locations to accommodate the new ferry service.  The Town of Beaufort has agreed to let the park use space in the town hall, which was the post office building on Front Street, free of charge.

“We are outfitting that with information that would develop some exhibits that will go in there so that people will get provided information prior to departure.  There will also be space for ticket sales and things like that.”

The town of Beaufort has indicated they will provide dock facilities across the street at Grayden Town Park and more than 80 parking spaces near the town hall.  Crystal Coast Ferry Services co-owner Bill Downum says locating in Beaufort is a bad idea and businesses in the area will likely take a hit.

“People going to Shackleford, they’ll park at 8:30 in the morning, and they’ll leave their car there until late in the afternoon. They’re going to come back sandy and salty and they’re not going to want to go to a restaurant.  They’re just going to occupy a parking space in downtown Beaufort all day long that could be used by many, many people.”

In addition to the downtown Beaufort launch point, improvements will also be made to the Harkers Island Visitors Center to help handle the ferry service, including a new ticket booth, dock replacements, and the construction of a shade shelter so visitors can comfortably wait for the ferry.   Havelock resident Ken Tyminski works part time with a ferry service company and he’s asked us not to use the name of the business.   He says he’s concerned that the added infrastructure could mean extra expenses for taxpayers.

“The park service just needed 3.3 million dollars to fix up the damage that Sandy did. So in the future, if the new ferry docks get damaged, guess who’s going to pay for the repair of them, we are as taxpayers.”

The Park Service’s plan for a single ferry company has met considerable opposition from residents and business owners in Carteret County.  But Park Superintendent Kenney says they’re following the law.  He thinks that a contracted ferry service will provide the park’s visitors with a more reliable, safe mode of transportation.

“Many of these properties that these private ferries operate from are private property. There’s no guarantee that ferry services will stay on them. But by moving these operations to the Harkers Island Visitors Center and to a partnership with the town of Beaufort, we have long term commitments to use that site as well as long term commitment to use the site in Harkers Island to create departure spots to the national park. “

Of the ferry service companies we spoke with, all of them said they already provide the reliable safe transportation that the Park Service wants to offer.  Bill Downum, the owner and operator of Crystal Coast Ferry Services in Morehead City, commented on a statement made by Park Superintendent Pat Kenney.

“He made a statement that the reason they’re doing this, the reason they’re making this change is to provide a more reliable ferry service for the traveling public. And I couldn’t even sleep that night after I heard him say that. I’ve been sitting on this corner where we operate for over two years.  The only time I’m not here and available is when there’s inclement weather and it’s not safe to carry people over there and the only time we don’t run is when they’re nobody to run over there.”

Safety concerns are just one of the reasons for the new ferry concession.   According to Superintendent Kenney, the change will allow the Park Service to get information about Cape Lookout National Seashore to people prior to visiting the park.

“We can provide them information about the park, what’s required, what they need once they’re out there, what services are there and what’s not there, so it’s an opportunity to kind of create a gateway before you leave and provide information to the visitors.”

Prior to the bid process, public meetings were held to hear concerns from residents and business owners.   Kenney says they also studied the economic impact on local businesses and ferry operators and determined that it would be a fiscally sound operation.  But when asked about the independently owned passenger ferry business that would cease to operate without the contract, he said:

“That’s the hard part about this, obviously, there’s impacts to this proposal to the businesses.  The winning bidder will have the rights to the point-to-point transportation from the mainland, from Harkers Island and Beaufort to the park. The existing other ferry services (will) not be allowed to provide that point-to-point transportation.”

While Superintendent Kenney maintains the effects of the proposal will be minimal, Havelock resident Ken Tyminski believes it will be widespread.

“They’re going to go to one operator with four boats and two skiffs, there’s got to be some job cuts not to mention administrative staff.  Additionally, we use local marine service companies to service our boats.  We also patronize the local merchants in Beaufort, as do other ferry operators. Additionally, these guys are involved in the community so much so that some of them make donations to the maritime museum and other organizations.  I don’t know how the man can say there’s not going to be economic impact.”

The request for bids went out earlier this year and they closed at the end of June.  It was recently announced that only two bids were submitted. When asked why they only had two bids for the contract, Park Superintendent Kenney said:

“I don’t know..that’s… I anticipated more.”

Steve Bishop, the owner of Island Ferry Adventures which has been operating out of Beaufort for 12 years, says he was interested in bidding.  But when he began to crunch the numbers, he says things didn’t add up.

“I went carefully over the prospectus, I hired a company that helps you write contracts that help you win government  bids and the more I got into it the more I realized that it would not work the way they want to do it.”

As part of the contract, the Park Service will receive a minimum of nine percent of revenue from the gross percentage of the business that wins the bid.  The prospectus also requires that ferry operators purchase a specific type of boat that holds up to 35 passengers, and requires businesses to have 1.5 million dollars in backing. 

“the park service wants nine percent of the gross, so assuming that you do a million dollars your first year, and then they’re going to get ninety.  And to put 90 thousand dollars on the bottom line for whoever operates it I have figured that you’ll have to get $21 per passenger.  Well, in Harkers Island, they have ferry services carrying you out there for 10 dollars. So are we going to go up 110% on those?”

The prospectus also mentions that the ferry operator will charge their standard 10 to 15 dollar rate for the first year. After, the Park Service will consider allowing the business to increase the fare per passenger. 

As Park Officials finish reviewing bids, the next step includes a legal review to ensure that there’s sufficient justification for the decision. If they approve it, the winning bidder may be notified as early as September.  The goal Kenney says is to have the ferry operational by April 2014.  If the contract is awarded, Bill Downum of Crystal Coast Ferry Services says they’ll have to sell one of their boats and consider providing local cruises to keep their business afloat. 

“and if that doesn’t work, we’ll sell that boat, and we’re out.”

Ferrying passengers to Shackleford is big business, making up about 80 percent of the profit Crystal Coast Ferry Services receives.  Likewise, the owner of Island Ferry Adventures Steve Bishop says his company will probably focus on giving tours.  Bishop also runs “Lookout Cruises” a 42 passenger sailing catamaran in Beaufort. 

“So I don’t know if, I would doubt seriously it would be profitable by just doing the tours and the few smaller islands ferry service that we do. But it’s something I’ll look at and if I can make a little bit of money and keep these people working, then I could keep these people working than I would certainly be interested in doing it.”

Although specific details aren’t known at this time, Cape Lookout National Seashore Park Superintendent Pat Kenney says they are looking at the possibility of offering contracts to companies who want to open up tour businesses where owners would provide guided tours of the area for a fee.  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.
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