Golden LEAF: No commitment to ferry project

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Dan Gerlach, Golden LEAF Foundation

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A potential key funding source for a proposed high-speed ferry system on the Albemarle Sound not only hasn’t endorsed the project, it’s also advising counties that commit to the project that they’ll be ineligible to receive its grant funding for other projects next year.

Dan Gerlach, president of the Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF Foundation, said he’s familiar with the Harbor Town project University of North Carolina professor Nick Didow is advocating as a way to boost economic development in rural communities along the Albemarle Sound.

Gerlach said he and his staff heard a presentation from Didow, a professor with the UNC Kenan Flagler Business School, on the project a couple of years ago. Gerlach called Didow’s proposal “legit” but said Golden LEAF hasn’t made any financial commitment to it.

"Talking to Golden LEAF and an endorsement by Golden LEAF are different," Gerlach said. "I just wanted people aware of this before they go and endorse this idea versus some other ideas."

Didow, who made a presentation about the Harbor Town project in Elizabeth City last week, would like to see counties along the Albemarle Sound tap into Golden LEAF Community-Based Grantsmaking Initiative funds to help launch the project. Didow believes if five counties apply for up to $1.5 million each in CGGI funding from Golden LEAF, the Harbor Town project could then use that $7.5 million to leverage funding from private, federal and other state sources.

According to Didow, the first phase of the Harbor Town project involves creating a high-speed ferry system linking Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia and Kitty Hawk. The project would require purchasing five 49-passenger, catamaran-style ferries that he estimates will cost $13.8 million. Didow estimates operating the ferry system would cost about $1.95 million a year.

During Didow's March 13 presentation, Albemarle Commission Executive Director Cathy Davison asked him to explain the project’s need for Golden LEAF funding. She asked if the Golden LEAF funds Didow’s project would be seeking would come from the same pot of money counties in the region are already working to obtain for other projects, or would it be from a different source.

Didow responded he would ask local governments to consider the projects they’re pursuing for Golden LEAF funding in light of the possibility of participating in the Harbor Town project.

When Davison again pressed whether the Harbor Town project would rely on the same pot of money, Didow said yes. He qualified his response by saying he doesn’t know the details of Golden LEAF funding, except that he had heard from Gerlach that the total amount in Community-Based Grantsmaking Initiative funding available for 2018-19 would likely be $11 million.

Didow also said he didn't know if Golden LEAF’s requests for proposals would indicate a preference for regional versus local projects.

“It does both,” Davison said.

Davison also noted many communities in the region are already working with coaches from the N.C. Rural Center and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation to prepare grant applications for Golden LEAF’s CBGI funding in 2018-19.

Gerlach shared a March 16 email he sent to local government officials across the region stating Golden LEAF’s position about the Harbor Town project. The email was in response to questions Davison emailed him about the project.

Gerlach said it’s his understanding that five counties are being asked “to commit their entire opportunity to apply” for Community-Based Grantsmaking Initiative funds to the Harbor Town project. He warned that “there is no separate pool of money that could be accessed from us” for the Harbor Town project, and that applying for funding for Didow’s project “would preclude any other proposals from those counties going forward for support” in 2018-19.

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.

Gerlach’s email also raises a number of questions about Didow’s projections. One asks where other money to complete the project would come from, and whether those other funding sources support the project.

The email also states creation of 94 “direct” jobs Didow has said the Harbor Town project will create “would generally not justify” a $7.5 million investment from Golden LEAF.

The email also questions whether Didow’s projections for the number of passengers the ferries would carry, paying a rate of $20, would generate enough revenue to make the project sustainable. “The question is, whether there is true measure of demand for these rides?” the email asks.

Gerlach’s email also asks if there have been projections on how much “additional tourism spending” the project would generate, and whether the spending would represent a “shift from other tourism attractions, rather than additive.”

Gerlach confirmed that 16 northeastern North Carolina counties are eligible to apply for a total of $11 million in CBGI grant funding for 2018-19. The counties include Pasquotank, Camden, Currituck, Perquimans, Chowan, Gates, Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington, Beaufort, Martin, Pitt, Bertie, Hertford, Halifax and Northampton.

Typically, Golden LEAF has focused on awarding grants to projects that are ready to go and focused on job creation, Gerlach said. Grant application deadlines haven't been set yet for the northeastern counties, he said.

"But, we're going to give them the chance to give us their best ideas. And they're all competing against each other," he said.