River taxi seeks partnerships for sustainability

River taxi seeks partnerships for sustainability
A fully enclosed vessel joined the St. Johns River Taxi fleet in late May.

Marketing plans proposed for right-size expansion

A fully enclosed 98-passenger vessel joined the St. Johns River Taxi fleet late last month. It’s the second of two newly acquired pre-owned boats operated by Lakeshore Marine Services as part of its agreement with the City of Jacksonville to maintain four taxis.

It’s also a positive move by the operator to try to “right-size” the city-dictated fleet for expansion plans to increase ridership.

The first vessel that Lakeshore Marine Services acquired earlier this year is a 50-passenger Beachcat commercial passenger boat with 250-horsepower engines that enable it to go longer distances more quickly to sites such as Jacksonville University or the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens.

“We want to purchase boats deliberately with consideration of expansion,” said Heather Surface, a partner in the company.

However, despite the launch of the St. Johns Explorer on May 26, the river taxi operator is struggling to keep the service going. If the current rate of ridership continues, it will lose nearly $250,000 next year.

Solutions on the table

Earlier in May, Surface brought a strategic plan to improve ridership to the Jacksonville Waterways Commission, as she sought support from the advisory board before rolling it out to potential partners.

Citing ridership figures provided in the 2014 Request for Proposal (RFP) that are higher than what has been served in the past year, Surface told the Waterways Commission last month that a new strategy is needed to ensure that the fleet continues service.

The figures in the RFP were based on 2012 ridership, which was over 50 percent more than during the comparative months of service after Lakeshore Marine Services took it over in August 2014.

Surface stated that among the reasons for decline were the gap in service after HarborCare LLC stopped operating in June 2014; construction on the Southbank Riverwalk for more than a year; one less Jaguars home game in 2014; a lack of destinations, and little to no marketing of the service.

One strategy she proposed would increase the number of regular destinations from four (Metropolitan Marina is only used for Jaguars game) to a dozen or more, including potential landing spots as the Riverside Arts Market, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens and Memorial Park, the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens and Jacksonville University.

Surface is also looking for private-public partnerships to bridge the $250,000 expense gap. Citing more than half a million dollars for vessels, labor, maintenance, fuel, insurance, and fees and permits, she said that marketing sponsorships and private funding matched dollar for dollar by public funds would help sustain the service.

Calling the proposed marketing plan On Board Jax!, Surface said events utilizing the water taxis could include a monthly “cruise and learn” series, sponsored tours for at-risk youth, restaurant sampling cruises, music jams, Sunday charters and more.

Surface said that she already has several partners lined up, including the Jaguars and the Omni Hotel, stating, “All downtown hotels should follow suit if they want us to maintain regular service for their hotel guests.”

On May 26, Bill 2015-397 was presented to City Council at the request of Mayor Alvin Brown seeking a contract with Lakeshore Marine Services that would provide city funds of $240,000 for use over two years as long as the operator matches those funds.

Surface indicated that she had commitments from two “founding partners” – the Florida Times-Union and the Jaguars – who have each pledged $30,000 in cash or in-kind support each year for two years.

Long-term agreement, with exit clause

In the meantime, a new five-year agreement between the city and Lakeshore Marine Services went into effect May 22, 2015. Although it includes a clause that will allow the river taxi company to reduce hours of service based on ridership, Surface hopes they won’t have to invoke that clause or the exit clause that allows them to give a 30-day notice to shut down service.

“If ridership doesn’t improve we do have an exit clause, but we’ve invested a lot of time and energy and purchased boats,” said Surface. “I know ridership is down but chiefly it’s because the service doesn’t go anywhere.

“Unity Plaza is a great addition to the city, but you should be able to get there by water. And wouldn’t it be wonderful for residents on the Southbank to travel to the Cummer and to the YMCA by water taxi?” she asked. “But first we have to make it work for Downtown and then eventually expand the service, procuring the right boats.”

Surface would like to see a river transportation feasibility study conducted by the city, looking at city-owned facilities, amenities, population densities, bridge spans, etc. to help change the mindset that boating is purely recreational.

“If there’s a business that will benefit from us providing transportation to their riverfront doorstep, we should be that provider,” she said, adding that once the apartments at 220 Riverside and Brooklyn Station are occupied, Riverside Avenue will become a parking lot during commuting hours. “The river taxi can and should be part of the transportation solution Downtown. It could be just a walk across the street to a landing site behind the YMCA.”

By Kate A. Hallock

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