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Jax Daily Record Monday, Feb. 4, 201312:00 PM EST

St. Johns River Ferry preparing for sunset: Commission developing terms for renting ferry

by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

Weddings, reunions and parties may soon be held on the deck of the St. Johns River Ferry as the St. Johns River Ferry Commission seeks ways to increase the service's visibility and revenue.

After a Nov. 24 voyage from its dock at Mayport Village to the Hyatt Downtown to participate in the Jacksonville Light Parade, the commission began to develop plans for sunset cruises and rentals when not being used to shuttle passengers across the river between Heckscher Drive and Mayport Village.

"This is a great opportunity to draw attention to the ferry as an attraction, as well as develop another revenue stream," said commission member Elaine Brown during a Jan. 23 commission marketing committee meeting.

Brown discussed the possibility of the ferry being rented out for parties, reunions and weddings.

Commission member Rich Redick was assigned to work with ferry General Manager Mark Fernandez to develop price packages for renting the ferry as well as developing a sunset cruise.

Packages would include a price for just the ferry, with another including the ferry, tables, chairs and tents.

At the Jan. 28 commission meeting, they presented a $3,000 estimate to rent the ferry and a $4,000 estimate to rent the ferry with tables, chairs and a tent.

A date has not been set for the ferry's inaugural sunset cruise.

Fernandez explained that a two-hour time limit would allow the boat to travel from Mayport Village to the Dames Point Bridge and back, because of the slow speed the boat would provide a pleasant atmosphere on the deck.

The ferry operates every day of the year, with its final daily departure at 7:15 p.m. from the Fort George Island gate to Mayport Village weekdays and 8:45 p.m. on weekends.

Brown also is developing a "Fam" trip to familiarize new Visit Jacksonville Executive Director and CEO Paul Astleford with the tourism opportunities in the area.

Brown described the guided tour as beginning with Amelia Island and showcasing Kingsley Plantation, Timucuan Preserve, Hanna Park and the ferry.

The second part would include Mayport to Jacksonville Beach, with a reception at the Jacksonville Beach Historic Museum. There, Astleford could meet government, business and community leaders.

City Council member John Crescimbeni, who chairs the commission, has introduced legislation to make the Visit Jacksonville CEO a commission ex-officio member.

Crescimbeni told members that generating revenue is the goal.

"When we consider partnering with other groups, even if they are nonprofit groups, the aim should be to partner with an organization whose membership can distribute and sell the maximum number of tickets to an event," said Crescimbeni.

The commission needs funding to help pay for capital projects and is receiving help from the City and Jacksonville Transportation Authority to research grants to help cover costs. Crescimbeni also has filed legislation to allow the commission to use some of its funding to hire a grant writer.

The Jacksonville Port Authority continues to partner with the City in ferry operations and notified the commission Jan. 23 that grants for ferry slip wall rehabilitation and vessel rehabilitation have been extended.

The grants available to the City through the port were awarded through the Federal Highway Administration and are being administered by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The commission is facing an out-of-the-water overhaul of the ferry by the end of the year at an estimated cost of about $1 million. It also faces a rebuild of the slip walls in 2013-14 at an estimated $11 million cost.

The commission was formed after the port, which was the ferry's previous operator, in February 2012 threatened to cease ferry operations. The City agreed to provide the commission one year to develop a funding plan to sustain ferry operations. The commission took control of the ferry Oct. 1.

"We have to find a way to fund the overhaul of the ferry by the end of the year or we will have to pull it out of the water and it is not likely to return," said Crescimbeni.

The first quarter report of ferry operations showed ridership numbers have failed to reach budget levels — down an average of 2,500 riders a month — and revenues exceeded budget expectations for only one of the first three months, creating a $24,000 deficit.

The decrease in ridership was initially offset by increased fares.

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