Caution warranted on Harbor Town ferry project


Sunday, June 16, 2019

We have supported the Harbor Town project since one of its chief proponents, University of North Carolina business professor Nick Didow, first started talking about it publicly early last year. The idea of linking “harbor towns” like Elizabeth City, Edenton, Hertford, Columbia and Kitty Hawk through fast ferries, and then building up their tourism infrastructure with new restaurants, shops and cultural attractions, has can’t-pass-this-up appeal.

Obviously, any project that could take advantage of our region’s chief asset — waterways — to attract more visitors to our riverfront and soundfront communities, many of which are now pass-throughs to other places, would enjoy broad support. And the concept of attracting more job-creating, tourism-based businesses to these communities, most of which are now resource-starved, has the makings of a dream come true.

But the devil in the Harbor Town project is in the details, and the details that matter most are funding and where it comes from.

Didow’s budget for Harbor Town calls for spending about $22.4 million over five years. That includes $8.5 million on buying five ferries and about $2 million a year in operation costs; another $7.21 million on what the project refers to as “themed renewal of communities” and “renewal” of 25 existing regional eco- and historic tourism sites; and about $1.3 million in administration costs.

Didow says because Harbor Town is a tourism-based economic project, he’s seeking private investors as well as grants from the N.C. Department of Commerce to fund it. He is not proposing spending any state transportation dollars on the project.

However, local officials apparently aren’t convinced. Both the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners and Elizabeth City City Council recently adopted resolutions of support for the project that also laid out conditions for that support. The biggest is that Harbor Town not include any state transportation funding. A second condition is that the project not go forward without independent market research showing it’s viable.

Local officials’ fear that transportation dollars might be earmarked for the Harbor Town project isn’t unreasonable. They point out that Division I, a 14-county region that includes the counties that would participate in Harbor Town, only receives about $15 million a year in state transportation dollars. Ferry services and associated projects like dredging already consume a large share of that funding. If Harbor Town is funded like a conventional ferry project, it would draw from what is already a limited funding source.

It’s also not unreasonable for local officials to question the viability of the Harbor Town project. Pasquotank County Manager Sparty Hammett has noted that the only study on Harbor Town is a “concept study” completed in 2015 by UNC. Hammett points out the study leaves “too many unanswered questions” about the project, including how many people will pay the estimated $20 ticket price to ride one of the ferries. Until some of those questions are answered through an independently conducted feasibility study, both city and county officials say they’re withholding support for Harbor Town.

Both city and county officials have also noted another potential stumbling block to the project’s success: the apparent lack of support thus far from Dare County communities, which is surprising since Kitty Hawk was mentioned in the original concept as a Harbor Town site. The city’s resolution in fact includes Dare County participation as a third condition for the city’s support. City Manager Rich Olson suggested Manteo should be studied as a Harbor Town, noting its potential as a transit location for Outer Banks tourists to visit other harbor towns by ferry.

Asked about the lack of Dare County participation, Didow said he still needs to have conversations with Dare officials. That seems incredible, especially given that it’s been more than a year since Didow first started talking about Harbor Town publicly and Dare is currently the destination for the lion’s share of the region’s visitors.

The Dare conversation obviously will be difficult. We could see Dare officials responding coolly to the idea of a state-funded project literally ferrying away Outer Banks visitors to spend their tourism dollars elsewhere. When you already have the tourism draw — beaches and ocean — it’s hard to share with others. But for Harbor Town to work, we think city and county officials are right: Dare County has to be on board.

We also believe local officials are right about having a study of a fast ferry project that looks at costs, revenues and potential ridership. If local resources are going to be committed, and given the complexity and reach of the project, particularly its “renewal” part, they will have to be, city and county officials have a fiduciary duty to know the money they’re spending isn’t being wasted.

It doesn’t qualify as a feasibility study, but the Harbor Town concept could get a trial run this fall. State Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, has proposed bringing a ferry service to the Harbor Town communities. We hope he’s successful. It could provide the buzz the project needs to draw more private investment and state participation.

Speaking of which, if we have a criticism of the city and county resolutions, it’s that they don’t include statements seeking a state appropriation specifically for the Harbor Town project. For the project to attract private investment, it’s likely going to have to have significant state participation. It wouldn’t have hurt for city and county officials to formally make that request. The worst that could have happened was that lawmakers said no.