UNC prof to pitch sound ferry project

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Shown here is an illustration about the proposed Harbor Town Project.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Albemarle Sound is currently the nation’s largest inland body of water without a ferry service.

Nick Didow, a longtime professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, is hoping a new regional effort to put high-speed passenger ferries on the sound changes that.

Didow will outline what’s being called the Harbor Town Project this week at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. His presentation is scheduled for Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon.

Didow, whose expertise is marketing, has worked with community leaders and officials across the Albemarle Sound region for years to develop tourism-based economic strategies. He considers the natural beauty of the sound and its surrounding counties a major asset that can be used to boost tourism growth. And he believes the Harbor Town Project, which is actually a three-phase plan, could help the region take advantage of this asset.

“Its success depends on collaboration and cooperation of all the counties around the Albemarle Sound,” Didow said of the Harbor Town Project during a phone interview last week. “And I’m hopeful that we can help build and assemble a partnership to put this in place.”

The first phase of the Harbor Town Project, Didow says, is creating a high-speed ferry system that would link Elizabeth City to other “sound towns”: Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia and Kitty Hawk. The project would require purchasing five 49-passenger, catamaran-style ferries, he said.

Didow estimates the cost of launching the ferry system at $13.8 million and its operational costs at $1.95 million a year. 

Didow said his data show the Harbor Town Project can be self-sustaining after the initial investment. He points out that more than 10 million people living in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina are within a three-hour drive of the Albemarle Sound. He believes a passenger ferry system on the sound has the potential to generate ridership of 107,000 during its first year, create 94 jobs and bring in $14 million in tourism revenue. Ticket prices would be kept low — about $20 — to encourage ridership.

Creating a passenger ferry system is only the first phase of the Harbor Project, Didow notes. The second phase, he said, would be “bringing to life,” through an emphasis on history and culture, each of the cities and towns linked by the ferries, particularly their downtown areas.

Didow envisions doing this in ways similar to how the story of Williamsburg, Virginia is now told — through historical interpretation, activities and story-telling. It also would include expanding the ferry system beyond the Albemarle Sound to the major rivers that flow into it.

The third phase of the Harbor Project, Didow said, involves upgrading both the historic and eco-tourism sites dotting the sound region, bringing them up to standards visitors would find appealing, interesting and worth their time to explore.

“There’s no shortage of these eco- and historic tourism sites, as you know, around the Albemarle Sound region,” he said.

Didow said he hopes phase one of the Harbor Town Project can begin “as quickly as we have assembled a regional partnership and regional cooperation, along with some initial major funding.”

“That may be as soon as a year from now,” he said.

Didow noted he’s already made other presentations on the Harbor Town Project, including at a town hall-type meeting in Edenton and to the Washington County Board of Commissioners in Plymouth.

“Every time I present this project, there’s valuable beneficial feedback and helpful suggestions — and I appreciate hearing those and listen very carefully,” he said.