Harbor Town Project: Prof seeks partnership on ferries


Nick Didow, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, discusses a proposed passenger ferry system for the Albemarle Sound region during a meeting on his proposed Harbor Town Project in the auditorium at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, Tuesday morning.


By William F. West
Staff Writer

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A University of North Carolina business professor made his pitch Tuesday for a system of passenger ferries that would transport visitors to harbor towns and eco- and historic tourism sites on the Albemarle Sound.

“Are you are on or off the boat?” Nick Didow asked an audience of approximately 100 civic and community leaders and residents who gathered to hear his presentation on the proposed Harbor Town Project at Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.

The first phase of the Harbor Town Project, according to Didow, involves creating a high-speed ferry system linking Elizabeth City to other towns on the Albemarle Sound: Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia and Kitty Hawk. The project would require purchasing five 49-passenger, catamaran-style ferries. He estimates it would cost $13.8 million to launch the ferry system and $1.95 million a year to operate.

The second phase of the Harbor Town Project, according to Didow, 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.

The third phase, Didow has 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.

Near the end of his presentation on Tuesday, Didow asked that the municipal governments in Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth and Columbia, and the county commissioners in Pasquotank, Perquimans, Chowan, Washington and Tyrrell counties consider adopting resolutions in support of the project.

“It’s time,” Didow said.

The agreement would authorize creation of a nonprofit corporation known as IBX, an acronym for Inner Banks, to submit the Harbor Town Project to the Golden LEAF Foundation and other private and public entities for possible funding.

The agreement would also create a board of directors, with membership from each city, town or county partnering on the project, to oversee phase one of the project, which involves purchase of the ferries. Didow would initially serve as the project’s executive director as well as a board member.

During phase two of the project, other communities in the region, including Camden, Currituck, Bertie, Hertford and Hyde counties, and the towns of Windsor and Williamston would be invited to join the regional partnership.

Didow said he expects the effort to include establishing a revolving loan fund to help established and start-up businesses accommodate themselves for the project. He said he’s also begun recruiting businesses in dining, entertainment, lodging and transportation to compliment the project.

Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth told fellow attendees that while the Harbor Town Project remains a work in progress, he’s a “huge supporter” of the proposal.

“It’s actually disappointing this didn’t happen 25 years ago,” Roth said. “We could be a quarter of a century ahead of where we are today.”

Roth said one challenge he already sees is routing the ferries.

“It’s a huge body of water. The distances are great, but it is something that’s going to need to be obviously fleshed out going forward as well,” he said.

Roth said there are likely to be winners and losers in the project. However, he called for flattening out, as much as possible, the ferries’ ability to transit the Albemarle Sound area and to create the expectation that visitors will travel to one or more communities on their ride.

Elizabeth City resident Betsy Rabon said she understands a lot of things will need to be considered when setting up the ferry routes. However, she said her cursory look at the project on Tuesday suggested that “70-80 percent” of its benefits will go to Edenton. Rabon was referring to a proposed straight-shot ferry route between Edenton and Kitty Hawk.

Rabon said her concern is that when day-trippers take the ferry at one of those two sites “they’re never going to get to us.” She called for either a hub-and-spoke system for the ferries or more direct routes between sites.

Rabon said that as an Elizabeth City resident, she initially was “very excited” about the Harbor Town Project.

“Now, I’m a little less excited,” she said.

While he appreciated Rabon’s dedication to Elizabeth City, Didow said for the Harbor Town Project to work, everyone has to recognize its regional benefit and that renewal efforts likely will be different in each participating community.

Nancy Bailey Muller, an Elizabeth City-based real estate agent, asked Didow whether there would be one template for ferry docking areas or if that would be something decided by each local government.

Didow said there wouldn’t be any cookie-cutter method; each local government would determine what it wants to do as well as the things it wants its harbor site to emphasize. The only standard requirement would be functional rest rooms in each docking area, he said.

Muller recalled that one of the issues in previous discussions about a regional ferry service is the lack of supporting infrastructure to take tourists from one place to another.

Didow said IBX would work with the participating communities to determine the kinds of transportation systems they would want to set up.

One of the citizens listening to Didow’s presentation Tuesday was Woody Perry, the original developer of the Albemarle Plantation development in Perquimans County.

Perry, who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, noted that something similar to Didow’s Harbor Town Project has been discussed in the past but never gained any traction.

Perry believes the project didn’t go anywhere before because the political environment wasn’t conducive for it. He also believes the connectivity and infrastructure issues were harder to surmount then.

“But, I think they’re right now,” he said. “The moon and the stars should be lining up right now.”

Perquimans County Manager Frank Heath liked Didow’s presentation, but said it’s premature to say Perquimans will join the regional partnership overseeing the ferry project. He will need to see the proposed agreement first, he said.

Heath also noted that local governments are already in the midst of preparing their applications to Golden LEAF for funding for other projects. Heath said Didow needs to check with the Rocky Mount-based nonprofit about the timeline for submitting a new project for funding.

Elizabeth City City Manager Rich Olson said he believes Didow’s proposal has some merits but the city will need to look at its financial impacts.

Olson noted the city already has a place where ferry boats could dock. The Bonny Blue, a cruising yacht that traveled between Chesapeake and Elizabeth City on the Dismal Swamp Canal from 2003-07, once docked at the city’s waterfront. The spot is capable of handling the type of vessels proposed in the Harbor Town Project, he said.

Asked if Elizabeth City would be willing to adopt the resolution Didow is seeking, Olson said city officials will need to study the proposal.

“It’s something we’ll have a discussion with our mayor on,” he said.