The new executive director of GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico believes passenger ferries from the facility to points in Baldwin County could be the key to making it a more popular attraction.
Former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow recently told members of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance that ferry service from the museum to Gulf Coast beaches could be a boon for the local tourism industry. As an example, Dow touted ferry services in Pensacola and Tampa, Florida, and told the group the job those cities did with the service could be used as a feasibility study for Mobile.
GulfQuest was built with the help of more than $20 million in federal transportation funding, in part, because of its possible use as a ferry terminal.
Fear over the federal government forcing the city to pay back these funds has been, at least partially, behind a public effort to keep the doors of the museum open. Dow told Lagniappe in an interview late last month that ferry service could secure the museum’s finances and help make it more stable because those funds would no longer be at risk.
During the interview, Dow brought up the possibility of service to several Baldwin County spots, including Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and even the landlocked OWA amusement park in Foley. He envisioned as many as 150 pedestrians at a time loading up at GulfQuest then being whisked to the Eastern Shore or Gulf beaches for the day, perhaps connecting with bus service once there. Dow also pointed to ferry service around Pensacola Beach, saying it shows how ferries could succeed in Mobile.
However, it’s unclear if ferry service has indeed been successful 60 miles to the east.
After less than a year in business with Gulf Islands National Seashore, former ferry operator Capt. George Aswad pulled out of a contract with the National Park Service last year. Aswad’s Gulf Coast Maritime Services Inc. was in charge of operating two 125-seat passenger ferries purchased by the park service, Gulf Islands National Seashore Executive Director Dan Brown confirmed in an interview with Lagniappe.
Concerning claims by Aswad that he lost $300,000 in one season of operating the ferries on Pensacola Bay, Brown said “he may have.”
“With any new business there are startup costs,” he said. “It takes time to build up a customer base.”
Brown also criticized Aswad for not doing enough to market the service. However, he admitted the July start of the service last season had a negative impact.
HMS Global Maritime has taken over the Pensacola operation, after signing an agreement with the park service, and started running them at the beginning of the season, Brown said. He’s hopeful that with a full season of service, the same ferry operator that runs the Mobile Bay auto ferry from Fort Morgan to Dauphin Island can find success in Pensacola.
It wasn’t cheap to get the ferry operation off the ground in Pensacola. Brown confirmed that the building of piers at three different locations, the two boats and other expenses cost taxpayers some $17 million in state, federal and local money. Dow has not said definitively where the money would come from for Mobile Bay ferries, but he has hinted that he thinks private industry will find the opportunities feasible.
The National Parks Service is taking steps to improve customer satisfaction for the ferries that travel between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens. Brown said the service will improve the road heading into Fort Pickens, where it offers free shuttle service to the historic site to ferry passengers.
HMS has also lowered the price of the ferry tickets, from $20 per adult to $18. Brown said the parks service doesn’t control ticket prices. As for pricing in general though, Brown said the Pensacola ferries at $56 for an all-day, hop-on, hop-off pass for a family of four was a value.
“It’s extremely affordable,” he said. “It’s the lowest cost of any National Parks ferry service.”
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