Council OKs regional ferry concept

Nick Didow.jpg

University of North Carolina Professor Nick Didow


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Elizabeth City City Council has endorsed the idea of a new regional ferry project, but isn’t committing any city funding for it.

Council voted 6-0 last week to adopt a resolution in support of the Harbor Town project that University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill business professor Nick Didow presented to local officials last month.

Didow proposed creating a tourism-oriented ferry system that would transport people to communities around the Albemarle Sound. Didow estimated the ferry system would cost almost $14 million to start up and nearly $2 million a year to operate, but he said it could sustain itself while driving up tourism.

“This project is being promoted as having the potential to significantly impact travel and tourism in our area,” City Manager Rich Olson reported to council.

The proposed five-town ferry would be managed by a private nonprofit, the IBX Authority, and serve Elizabeth City, Edenton, Hertford, Columbia and Plymouth, he reported. Notably, Olson's memo does not include Kitty Hawk, which Didow proposed as a participant in the project.

Olson also told council the city’s resolution “does not include any monetary commitment on behalf of the city of Elizabeth City.”

Didow last month suggested communities involved in the Harbor Town project ask for grants from the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation to help cover the project’s start-up costs. He has proposed using Golden LEAF's funding to leverage private investment for the Harbor Town project.

However, Elizabeth City, like other communities, already has plans for the potential $1.5 million it could receive from Golden LEAF next year. If its application for funding is approved, the city hopes to use the Golden LEAF funds installing additional fiber-optic lines to grow broadband internet access. Faster, cheaper internet service is a high priority for the city and other rural communities.

Councilor Johnnie Walton questioned if city staff had adequately researched the Harbor Town project or informed council about it.

Olson said all councilors were notified ahead of Didow's presentation at Museum of the Albemarle last month, and reiterated the city is only supporting the project in concept. Many details still need to be worked out, he said.

Didow has so far proposed the Harbor Town project as a three-phase project. After setting up the ferry service, cities and towns would then promote and improve their historic, cultural and eco-tourism sites.

Golden LEAF President Dan Gerlach has expressed skepticism about the Harbor Town project, questioning if Didow's projected ridership and revenues are overly optimistic. He’s also pointed out to local governments considering endorsing the project that Golden LEAF has no separate funding source for it. Any towns or counties deciding to use grant funds they received next year from Golden LEAF for the Harbor Town project wouldn’t be eligible for additional grant funding for other projects, Gerlach said.