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Discussions halted on harbor tours at the wharf
A Coupeville man’s ambition to start a harbor tour business out of the town’s wharf hit a snag.
Patrick Kelly proposed starting Heavenly Harbor Tours and began negotiating with the Port of Coupeville early this year. After back and forth discussions, the commissioners are no longer responding to his requests to come to a lease agreement, Kelly claims.
The proposed tour business would operate hourly harbor tours highlighting Coupeville’s history. It would also serve as a water taxi to and from the Captain Whidbey Inn.
The commissioners presented what they said is a “best and final” offer of $300 for moorage, which would be waived for the first year, and a $1 per head passenger charge.
Kelly’s standing proposal is for a $300 moorage and no per-passenger fee.
“The fee was negotiated down and down and could never get low enough for him,” said Tim McDonald, executive director for the Port of Coupeville. “Moorage was dropped from $700 to $300. Mr. Kelly didn’t find that acceptable. At this point it’s up to (him.)”
During discussions with Kelly, the board of commissioners drafted and passed Resolution No. 191, which stipulates the port will collect a $1 per head passenger fee for any vessel embarking from the wharf. The fee is not imposed on commercial boats bringing passengers from a port other than Coupeville, such as the Victoria Clipper, or vessels serving in a nonprofit capacity.
Kelly said he is opposed to the per-head fee because it does not fit into industry standards and is not competitive in the market place.
McDonald said while drafting the resolution he initially proposed a $2 per- head fee.
“I’m constantly looking at getting the budget sustainable,” he said.
Kelly said when comparing the port’s offer to other venues in the area, it’s just not competitive. He said he’s asked the port to show him their research, but has yet to see any. Tour companies that operate out of Deception Pass and Port of South Whidbey do not charge per-head fees, he said.
One of the issues taken into consideration, McDonald said, is that the port pays a lease fee to the Department of Natural Resources for the water underneath the wharf dock.
Because the wharf is used mostly for recreational purposes, it falls into a lower lease rate.
McDonald said that every time the port signs a new lease, it must send the lease to DNR for review and the port’s payments could increase.
“We’re not in the business of making money, but we’re not in the business of spending more than we take in,” McDonald said.
Since drafting the resolution, the port has signed two lease agreements with Jerry and Mark Saia for their sailing business. They were offered the same terms as Kelly.
While he said he thinks it’s great to see commercial enterprise operating out of the wharf, Kelly said the businesses differ from his.
The boat Kelly is purchasing seats 14 people and he plans on running 10 tours a day, 12 in peak season.
In peak season, if he ran at maximum capacity, Kelly could be paying more than $5,000 a month in passenger fees. He said the smaller sailing businesses don’t serve as many people and the fees probably won’t impact them as much.
He also has more overhead costs because of the size of boat he will be using.
“As soon as you go over six passengers things change and the Coast Guard gets involved,” he said. “There are more regulations and certifications involved.”
He said his investment in starting the business will be upwards of $100,000.
During discussions, commissioners suggested Kelly just tack on the $1 to his normal fee, but he didn’t like that idea.
“I’m trying to do something that’s more affordable for people,” Kelly said. “Every dollar you raise the price is going to effect ridership. For the business to be sustainable, I need more traffic.”
Since the final offer standoff, Kelly said he has since gone back to the port to open discussions again, but to no avail.
In what Kelly said is the last email correspondence he’s received from a port commissioner on the issue, Commissioner Bill Larsen said the board had presented its best and final offer and it was up to him to choose.
“The board is committed to economic growth and development as well as maintaining the historic heritage of all our holdings,” Larsen wrote. “Our decisions are based on what’s best for the port, the waterfront, the community and our business partners. .. It is my belief that we have spent significant and adequate time in arriving at our decision.”
Kelly said if he can’t get the commissioners to reopen discussions, he has two options.
“I have the choice to sell the boat and bag the deal or go somewhere else,” he said.
Lynda Eccles, executive director for the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce has followed the discussions and Kelly’s efforts to start the business.
“One of the No. 1 questions we get is, ‘Do you have boat tours?’” she said. “I was excited when the idea was first presented.
“I was excited we were possibly going to be able to offer it.”