belle of washington

The Belle of Washington, shown here docked at Waterfront Park in Elizabeth City in May 2018, may be returning to the region next year as a touring vessel on the Albemarle Sound.

HERTFORD — Area officials are hoping to use a smaller cruise vessel on the Albemarle Sound next summer to help show the tourism-boosting potential of a larger project using passenger ferries.

During a meeting Monday in Hertford, officials associated with the Harbor Town Project said they were hoping to attract the 85-foot-long Belle of Washington to the region for Albemarle sound tours. The vessel, which can accommodate as many as 60 passengers, could be used every other month between April and October, officials said.

“Having the Belle of Washington in the Albemarle Sound region during the summer of 2020 will be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to enjoy. It’s exciting, people are enthusiastic about it,” said Nick Didow, an associate professor of marketing at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School. “When the Belle was here before, it was wonderfully successful. We are just really excited about what this summer is holding. It is a major step forward in the Harbor Town project.”

The Harbor Town Project was launched several years ago as a way to boost the economies of the “harbor towns” ringing the Albemarle Sound region. The project proposes spending almost $14 million to purchase ferries that would operate between towns like Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia, Elizabeth City and Kitty Hawk. The project also envisions a public-private partnership to upgrade historic and eco-tourism sites along the sound, making them more attractive to visitors.

Besides Didow, state Rep. Ed Goodwin, R-Chowan, is another chief proponent of the Harbor Town Project. Goodwin encouraged area officials to continue to support the project at Monday’s meeting.

“The idea is still in the forefront — I’m keeping the stove warm, keeping the pot hot,” said Goodwin, who formerly managed the state ferry division. “Interest is still there in the General Assembly and I’m going to still keep on pushing it. I hope your support and encouragement and desire for this project never fails and you see it come to fruition.”

Goodwin said the passenger ferry project that he worked on that links Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island has been a huge success. He noted the number of ferry passengers far exceeded what was expected when the ferry division started the route in May. He suggested a ferry vessel operating on the Albemarle Sound could also be popular with visitors.

Goodwin in fact had arranged for the 150-passenger ferry used for the Cape Hatteras-Ocracoke route during the summer to begin pilot runs across the Albemarle Sound in September. Because of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival off the North Carolina coast in early September, however, the ferry’s owners moved the boat out of the storm’s path and the proposed week-long trial was canceled.

Goodwin said he doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be able to arrange use of a passenger ferry for a similar trial in the spring. However, state funds set aside to pay costs associated with the trial — $70,000 — may still be used to support a future project, he said.

“I’m absolutely optimistic that something will be accomplished and the project will move forward next year,” Goodwin said.

The Belle of Washington made a two-day loop of the Albemarle Sound region in May 2018, embarking from Elizabeth City and making stops in Perquimans County, Edenton, Plymouth and Columbia before returning to Elizabeth City. The tour was scheduled as part of a year-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Albemarle’s founding.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at