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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Apr. 7, 201512:00 PM EST

Long-term deal nearly in place for water taxi

by: David Chapman

Kept afloat with a short-term agreement and prolonged through monthly extensions, a long-term fix for Downtown’s water taxi is in reach.

The city and current operator, Lakeshore Marine, have a deal in place that would keep the service with the Jacksonville-based company for at least five years.

There’s just one final piece needed to make it work.

Lakeshore has until May 22 to show proof of vessels for the long-term deal.

It’s been using two boats bought last year by Harry Frisch, chairman of Beaver Street Fisheries. Frisch paid almost $339,000 for the boats after the mayor’s office bought them on an emergency basis, but the purchase was later deemed unauthorized.

Lakeshore will use Frisch’s boats — the 102-passenger Native Choice and 50-passenger Sea Charm 1 — until at least April 30.

Heather Surface, a Lakeshore Marine partner, said the company is trying to “exhaust all efforts” to keep the Frisch boats in Jacksonville.

She said the current level of business doesn’t support the expense, though, which is why other revenue streams are needed.

Surface said a 50-passenger vessel has been secured and that with its larger engine, it can more easily travel farther distances to waterfront destinations like Jacksonville University and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. It will operate as a private charter for JU students Downtown this week for One Spark.

If Lakeshore comes to a deal for the Frisch boats, the service would have a capacity of more than 200 — well over the required 120 the long-term contract calls for during football games at EverBank Field and other large events.

Surface said there are other boats identified as backups, but the hope is still for a deal with Frisch.

“We have a good relationship and we have been communicating with them,” she said.

For now, the latest short-term extension for the service with the Frisch boat runs until April 30, according to Pam Roman, city Parks, Recreation and Community Development spokeswoman.

Once boats are secure and Lakeshore signs the city deal, it’s on to finding a way to make the service sustainable. Surface said ridership numbers are “still very low” and identifying new revenue streams will be vital.

One source could be advertising on the vessels, but without the long-term deal finalized that hasn’t yet been pursued. Other options could be additional stops along the river — Brooklyn and the Shipyards could work — and additional services like river cruises and eco-tours.

Surface said she and Lakeshore have met with representatives from the JAX Chamber, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, and the Downtown Investment Authority among others to seek input.

“It’s just the idea of trying to develop a model that supports Downtown,” she said.

Because the old model — the one that ended with the former service provider leaving — just isn’t sustainable, she said.

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