A Havelock couple is spearheading an effort to get the National Park Service to drop a plan to consolidate ferry service to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Under the new plan scheduled to take effect next year, the park service would award one contract for passenger ferry service to Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks. Ferries would run from the park’s ferry terminal at the Harkers Island Visitor Center and the Beaufort waterfront.
Currently, there are eight passenger ferry services the park service has authorized to shuttle tourists and nearby residents to Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, barrier islands accessible only by boat.
Havelock residents Ken and Judi Tyminski have started an online petition on change.org to stop the consolidation.
“It puts the local businesses out of business and affects the economy of Eastern North Carolina,” Judi Tyminski said.
She sees the plan as creating a monopoly and fears it will drive up prices.
Her petitions send letters to park service officials, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, and the Tyminskis want help from someone able to stop the process.
For Capt. Bill Downum, this season may be the last for his ferry service.
“For us, it’s going to be the loss of 80 to 90 percent of our business,” said Downum, who operates Crystal Coast Ferry Service on the Morehead City waterfront. “Basically what it means is we may not be able to operate.”
Downum said Shackleford Banks trips are the bulk of his business. He said he may give scenic tours a try next season, but that leaves uncertainty for the future.
“If this plan proceeds, I may try keeping one of the two boats and just try cruises,” he said.
It is unclear the plan’s potential impact on guided tours, which it does not address.
The ferry operations leave from sites along Harkers Island, and the Beaufort and Morehead City waterfronts.
Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Pat Kenney said bidding closed in June and proposals now are being reviewed by a panel of park service officials independent of Cape Lookout and the project.
Kenney said the panel is looking to see that established criteria are met and then the proposals get a legal review.
“Our goal is to have a contract awarded in early September and we’re seeking to have the ferries operating by spring 2014,” he said.
Kenney said there are two proposals being reviewed but said he could not provide details.
Downum said he didn’t put in a bid and that it would be difficult for small, local operators to do so with the requirement that they have $1.5 million in backing.
Calico Jack’s, which has been operating on Harkers Island since the early 1990s, has announced on its website it won’t likely continue trips to Cape Lookout.
“After reviewing the contract and proposal materials, the owners of Calico Jack’s Ferry have decided not to bid on the Cape Lookout concession,” according to the Calico Jack’s website. “Unless circumstances change, the 2013 season will be our last year in business as a ferry operator.”
While the park service plan will bring changes, Kenney said the idea is not a new one. The planning has been under way at least five years, he said, and has included public hearings.
The goal is to consolidate and to create two “gateway” locations from which visitors can get information about the park and access the ferries.
Improvements will be made to the park service terminal at Harkers Island and the park service has an agreement with the Town of Beaufort to build there.
For now, there’s uncertainty over the season ahead.
“That’s the worst part, not knowing,” said Laura Sturgell, who has worked at Island Ferry Adventures on the Beaufort waterfront for five years.
While trips to Shackleford are a big part of the business, Island Ferry Adventures has three boats that also make trips to Carrot Island, Bird Shoal and Sand Dollar Island and offers a variety of scenic tours.
Sturgell hopes to see the business expand on those services and continue to be profitable.
“We’re all still worried about what it is going to mean,” she said.