Funding limits threaten Plover summer schedule

Published on Fri, Feb 6, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Restrictions in the city’s grant funding the Plover ferry may shorten or even eliminate the popular ferry’s 2009 season, according to Richard Sturgill, founding director of Drayton Harbor Maritime (DHM), the local non-profit agency that operates the boat on contract with the city of Blaine.

Sturgill was referring to the Blaine Tourism Advisory Committee’s (BTAC) recommendation that $5,000 of the city’s annual $30,000 grant to the Plover be allocated to publicity, in effect cutting operational funding by that amount. Blaine City Council made this official late last year in passing this year’s budget.

BTAC’s understanding was that DHM had agreed last fall to charge $5 per trip instead of relying on donations in the suggested amount of $2 per adult. They felt that designating $5,000 of the grant to publicize the ferry would help increase patronage, raise more money and possibly even lead to a longer season or weekday operations.

In an October 28, 2008 letter, city council member and BTAC chair Jason Overstreet thanked the DHM board for agreeing to the $5 ticket fee. But according to their meeting minutes the DHM board agreed only to raising the suggested donation to $5 per adult and did not agree to mandate tickets. They so advised BTAC and asked that the restriction on the funding, directing $5,000 toward unspecified publicity for the ferry, be removed so more money could be used for the ferry’s operation.

The DHM board opposed the ticket requirement because it feels it would leave people out who can’t afford it, especially families, without any assurance that it would increase income. Sturgill also said it would seriously weaken their volunteer and donor base.

When asked where he got the information that DHM had agreed to charge for tickets, Overstreet did not answer, only saying that he “wasn’t going to go there.”

Plover Captain Sam Clemens isn’t sure advertising is what’s needed. “The boat’s already full in July and August. In July we carried 2,208 passengers in 12 days, eight of which involved double trips, averaging 180 passengers in eight trips per day, and on eight days we ran double trips (constant round trips without taking time for sightseeing) because of the number of passengers.” The boat is licensed to carry 17 passengers.

Clemens said that figures for August were 2596 passengers in 15 days of operation running double trips on 10 of them for an average of 166 per day. Income was $1,798 for July and $2,220 for August. “We figure that 20 percent of our passengers are kids, and that 20 percent of our passengers are local. Most of them come from somewhere outside the area, from all over,” he said.

After several meetings between representatives of the two groups going back to November 2008, a kind of summit meeting between the full DHM board and BTAC to air their differences and try to come to some kind of consensus was set up last month and scheduled for the regular BTAC meeting on Tuesday morning. But late last week it was abruptly canceled. According to Overstreet, the matter will now go before the city council, most likely on February 23.

DHM chairman Mike Dodd said that he was surprised by the cancellation. “I don’t know who called it off, but I got a call from Jason last week telling me that the meeting wasn’t going to happen.”

In material he prepared for the meeting, Dodd said the DHM board has “grappled over BTAC’s 2009 funding of the Plover for the last two board meetings and several special meetings that were entirely directed to the BTAC’s budget for the ferry.”

BTAC member Mine Hakim said it was the same for them. “It’s consumed a lot of our time on BTAC and people are really getting tired of it,” she said.

When asked who had decided to cancel Tuesday’s meeting, Overstreet again declined to answer directly, saying only that “DHM and BTAC have discussed this over and over again, BTAC made its decision, DHM appealed it, so now it’s really up to the city council,” adding that he intended to bring it up as an agenda item on February 9 to be dealt with on February 23.

Blaine’s community and tourism coordinator Debbie Harger, the city staff assigned to BTAC, said “You know, we’re all on the same side. We all want the Plover to run and to operate as long as it can each year, even increase it if possible,” adding that the city went so far as to take over ownership of the Plover last year from DHM to satisfy a state law that otherwise would have precluded the Plover from getting any funding from the BTAC’s funding source, local shares of the state’s hotel and motel tax.

Overstreet agreed, saying emphatically that “BTAC has made it very clear that it’s an extremely valuable asset to the city.”

Speaking for the board, Dodd outlined three options, the first two of which assume that the $5 ticket policy is in place. Option one also assumes that the restriction on $5,000 of the funding is lifted, but because there are no guarantees of increased income with the ticket charge and some major donors and volunteers have said they won’t support it if a fee is required, a funding shortfall cuts the season from 49 to 32 days, roughly the Fourth of July through Labor Day.

Option two assumes that the restriction on funding is not lifted, and in that case, Dodd said, DHM cannot sign a contract to operate the Plover.

On the other hand, if the council agrees to lift the restriction on funding and allow the Plover to continue to rely on donations instead of charging for tickets, it can operate normally for the full season based on the $30,000 grant, volunteer commitments and promised financial support as it has since it began operating in 1996. Dodd labeled this option three.

While the board voted to raise the suggested donation to $5 per adult passenger last fall, Dodd said, “It doesn’t seem to be wise to raise the adult fare to ride the ferry more than double in these weak economic times. I would hope for the Plover and the Blaine community [that BTAC] would give this last option every consideration.”

Jack Kintner is a member of the DHM board.