As the city attempts to restore water-taxi service along the St. Johns River, a group representing the tourism industry and advocates for Downtown and the river gathered Wednesday to discuss the future of the service and river activity.
Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville, said he invited the participants to the informal discussion because of the river’s value in marketing Jacksonville as a convention and tourist destination.
“This has to do with the bigger picture of activity on the river and how that relates to the image of the community,” he said.
Visit Jacksonville is the convention and visitors bureau for Jacksonville and the Beaches.
The city has set a 2 p.m. Wednesday deadline for a Request for Proposals to operate the service between the Northbank and Southbank Downtown.
Jim Bailey said the city began regulating water taxi service during the John Delaney administration in an effort to improve the service. Bailey is a member of the Downtown Investment Authority, a former member of the Jacksonville Waterways Commission and publisher of the Daily Record.
After a period of non-regulation and five vendors competing for passenger business, the city issued an RFP to make the service available to a single provider and to establish regulations to provide a high level of service, including routes and hours of service.
The original contract was awarded to SS Marine Taxi, which operated the service until it was taken over last year by Baltimore-based HarborCare. That company ceased local operations June 6 after a contract couldn’t be reached with the city.
HarborCare, citing monthly revenue shortfalls partially linked to the Southbank Riverwalk construction project, was seeking a $25,000 per month payment from the city to replace a $600 per month payment to the city.
The RFP closing Wednesday is the city’s second attempt this year to secure a long-term water taxi service contract. The first RFP garnered a single response — HarborCare. That RFP specified the vendor to provide at least one boat that seats 40 people Monday-Thursday, two boats and total of 70 seats Monday-Thursday and six boats with a total capacity of 350 passengers for special events and football games.
The request closing Wednesday calls for a minimum capacity of 30 passengers for normal daily operations and three boats able to carry 129 passengers for special event days.
The city has reached a tentative short-term deal with a private company to run the service once legal issues are worked out. That would ensure service would be available during football season.
Astleford said he’s concerned if the latest RFP does not produce a suitable response it could seriously delay permanent restoration of the water taxi service, since the city would be faced with beginning the process all over.
Bailey, who attended the pre-bid meeting for the RFP, said while “it was nice to see” several people representing potential bidders at the meeting, they need to clearly understand the expenses and potential revenue sources of providing the service on the St. Johns River.
Downtown Investment Authority CEO Aundra Wallace said if none of the proposals opened Wednesday are acceptable, the city would be faced with a situation similar to the RFP for private management of Hemming Plaza.
When the first RFP for Hemming Plaza opened last September did not receive a response, the city modified the specifications and issued a second RFP that attracted a single response. When the RFP closed in December, only one potential management concern responded.
That led to negotiations over terms and responsibilities that lasted six months. The final agreement is scheduled to be introduced to City Council this month for its review and would not take effect until approved by council.
Wallace said transportation, including on the river, is an integral part of Downtown’s future development, and he will make a “friendly request” for the DIA to “sit in” on the evaluation of the RFP.
Bailey also suggested the water-taxi service should be considered a “loss leader.” In other cities, the service is part of economic development offices, not the parks department as it is in Jacksonville. The service is also is often subsidized by the government to ensure a reliable service.
As the meeting ended, Astleford suggested continuing to “bring together the right people to talk about a new generation of water activity.”
Wallace said the authority could consider forming a committee to study Downtown riverfront alternatives.