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Trial Inner Banks ferry may not stop in EC

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A trial run of an Inner Banks ferry service is moving forward, with stops planned in four towns — but not, apparently, in Elizabeth City.

That's according to a recent email update from UNC-Chapel Hill business professor Nick Didow, who's leading the effort to start a Harbor Town project aimed at boosting tourism and economic activity in Edenton, Hertford, and other small towns along the Albemarle Sound.

To help drive the project forward, state Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, is also pushing for a trial run of a ferry boat or boats this fall, despite reservations from Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County officials.

Now it appears uncertain that Elizabeth City will be one of the stops in the ferry's trial run. That's based on an email last week from Didow to Harbor Town Advisory Board members and others.

“As of today, participation in the trials has been requested by the towns of Plymouth, Columbia, Hertford and Edenton,” Didow said in the email, while indicating the trial run is still aimed for September and October. He also asks participating communities to provide lists of events and attractions they have going on, so as to help with marketing and planning the ferries' times and routes.

He also notes he and his staff will work to help plan how each community could be “more welcoming and engaging to tourists and visitors in general, and how each town can most benefit from the possible ferry trials this fall.”

Didow also noted in the email he's invited representatives from Dare County and Manteo to the board's meeting on July 29 to discuss a potential ferry route there.

How the trial run will move forward is unclear, however. Goodwin could not be reached for comment Friday, and though he said in a previous interview he's found the funding for the ferry trial, he has not detailed how much it will cost or where the money is coming from. He did say the funds "absolutely" will not come from state transportation dollars — a point of contention for Elizabeth City and Pasquotank officials, who said they oppose any use of those funds for the ferry project.

Goodwin has also said he's looked to the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry as a model service for this fall's trial, and suggested that ferry or others might be used. Because schedules are still being worked out, he said no dates have been set yet for when the trial will take place.

When it does take place, a ferry stop in Elizabeth City seems unlikely. In a June 24 email, Didow asked for towns to inform him “immediately” if they wanted to participate.

In interviews Friday, County Manager Sparty Hammett and City Manager Rich Olson both said they had no new information beyond Didow's emails, nor had they heard from Goodwin recently about the ferry service.

For his part, Goodwin said in a recent interview he hasn't heard from Elizabeth City and Pasquotank officials about the ferry trial. He noted no one from the two local governments attended a meeting in Ocracoke last month where officials from the other four communities got to see the new Ocracoke-Hatteras passenger ferry in action.

Olson and Hammett also reiterated the positions of Pasquotank County commissioners and the Elizabeth City City Council: the Inner Banks ferry service needs a feasibility study before it's funded, and it should not be paid out of the region's scarce state dollars for transportation. Commissioners and council adopted resolutions to that effect last month.

On Friday, Hammett said a trial ferry service is not a substitute for a feasibility study, which would include market analysis to figure out if there'd be enough riders to sustain the costly service. Didow has estimated the service would cost about $14 million to start up.

Hammett also claimed the success of the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry doesn't indicate Harbor Town would succeed.

“It's apples and watermelons,” he said, noting the Ocracoke ferry is necessary for island residents and charges cheaper fares than what Didow has proposed for Harbor Town.

Of the Inner Banks communities in Harbor Town, Elizabeth City offers a relatively large and active waterfront. Asked if a trial ferry run that doesn't include Elizabeth City would be viable, both Hammett and Olson said they didn't know.

But Goodwin suggested last month that Elizabeth City and Pasquotank's involvement isn't necessary for the trial to go forward.

"Look, if we've got a city or county that doesn't want to be involved, we're not going to force them to be involved," he said. "Everybody that wants to be part of it will be a part of it. Those who want to be part of it are excited about the project, so I'm going to keep moving forward with it."

Asked if Elizabeth City and Pasquotank should help fund a feasibility study of the Harbor Town project, Olson said the city might consider paying its “fair share,” while Hammett said the county might consider a contribution as well, though he stressed that's a decision for county commissioners.

As for how much a feasibility study would cost, Olson and Hammett said it depends on its scope. Market analysis could be done for less than $200,000, but doing market analysis and studying how to draw riders to Harbor Town destinations could cost that much or more, Olson estimated.

During the previous interview, Goodwin estimated an independent study might cost between $250,000 and $350,000.

Managing Editor Julian Eure contributed to this report.

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