For David and Frances Barrett, a quiet afternoon cruise along the Oklahoma River was just what they were looking for during their recent stay in Oklahoma City.
"It's nice and relaxing," said David Barrett, who was visiting from Roff. "It's a nice way to spend an afternoon."
The Barretts paid $15 each to share their ride to the Meridian Landing on an air-conditioned, enclosed boat with just one other couple from Houston — and then had the boat all to themselves on the 90-minute ride back to Regatta Park.
Oklahoma City taxpayers picked up the rest of the tab — which, including the upcoming 2011 fiscal year, cumulatively totals $2.1 million.
The city has spent another $480,000 in federal funding on capital improvements related to the cruise operations.
Add to that an advertising budget and the employment of a full-time marketing and operations director at the city's Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, who is paid $53,497 a year, and taxpayers' costs for the first three years of the boat operations total more than $2.7 million.
Despite such public investment, ridership has continued to drop from the first year when the count totaled 19,397. Month-to-month figures show ridership for this spring and summer season running a few hundred below the previous year.
Even if last month's figures, which are not yet available, match those for 2009, ridership for the 2010 fiscal year would still be 4,000 less than the inaugural season.
Jeanne Smith, river transit manager with the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, which oversees the cruiser operations, acknowledges routine weekday trips such as those that carried the Barretts are still struggling to find an
But on a Saturday when the city was deluged with heavy rain, the boats were filled to capacity.
The difference? Theme cruises, which Smith is hoping will continue to excite potential customers.
While seats are virtually empty on many of the routine daily cruises, the sunset weekend cruises are sold out for the remainder of this month.
Likewise, more than 30 people gathered last week to enjoy a combination of Bugs Bunny cartoons and a presentation by two Civil War re-enactors on a cruise that at one point had to stop due to a rising river swelled by heavy rain.
"During the first year, a lot of our work was publishing scheduled service routes between Regatta Park (south of Bricktown) and the Meridian Landing (at SW 15)," Smith said. "It went pretty well. It was something brand new — something not done before. We took a lot of senior groups. People would ride to Regatta Park, have a nice lunch, and then take a trolley or boat back to the Meridian Landing."
During the first year the river cruisers were also backed with $100,000 in marketing support from Devon Energy, which as the operation's main sponsor also chipped in $2 million toward the purchase of two of the three boats and construction of a maintenance building.
As the newness wore off and available marketing dollars shrunk, so did the ridership, Smith said.
Other early problems had to be overcome as well.
Hornblower Marine, contracted to run the boats for a monthly $15,000 management fee, shook up its staff after complaints that customers weren't able to get cruise information by phone.
Smith acknowledged it wasn't easy, at first, to convince Hornblower employees to include guided tour information on the rides, which, if traveled the full two-way route, lasts three hours.
"They were hired to drive boats ... they operate large ferry systems," Smith said. "And I'm asking them to transport citizens and keep them entertained on the way to their destination. It took a little bit of a push to get this done. You don't just drive."
Capt. Stephen Stanionis, who oversees Hornblower's Oklahoma River cruises, agrees the Oklahoma City operation is unique. But he adds that Hornblower Marine has adapted.
On recent cruises sampled by The Oklahoman, including one unannounced visit, boat captain Mark Andrews consistently provided passengers with details on all portions of the cruises, including a history of the river and information about the emerging Boathouse Row, the Stockyards and the Meridian Avenue corridor.
Not once, however, were passengers told about Bricktown, even though Regatta Park is just south of what is the state's most popular urban entertainment district.
Houston residents John Lynan and Jeanne Stott decided to spend their Friday afternoon on the cruisers after seeing an advertisement in a tourism magazine. But they were unable to learn anything about Bricktown from a boat deckhand.
Brochures on the boat, meanwhile, promote the river, Bass Pro Shops, the downtown artwalk, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the city's trails system. But no materials were on board to provide visitors information about Bricktown.
The Barretts, the only other passengers on the cruise, then spent five minutes telling the Houston pair about the success of the city's Metropolitan Area Projects, the development of Bricktown and its attractions.
Like the Barretts, Lynan and Stott gave the cruise high marks. And passengers aboard the theme cruises were even more upbeat about their rides, even though they were forced by the torrential rain to stay inside the boat's cabin.
Smith said promotional efforts continue to be ramped up and schedules and operations are being refined to cut costs.
In addition to the theme cruises, operators also are seeing success with promotional coupons and campaigns aimed at hotel concierges working in the Meridian Avenue hospitality district. A third stop added along Exchange Avenue also allows passengers the option of a shorter cruise.
Plan falls short
Pat Downes, development director for the Oklahoma City Riverfront Redevelopment Authority and a promoter of the river since the early 1980s, admits the idea of using the boats for public transit has fallen short of expectations.
Initially designed for a daily route schedule, the cruisers this year only operate Wednesday through Sunday and don't run January through March.
"The key to the long-term success of the program is continuing to introduce the service to broader audiences," Downes said. "The theme cruise promotion program is a part of that marketing outreach. And it's been very successful. We've had virtually 100 percent satisfaction reflected on surveys by people who have been on the cruises."
Downes, who was virtually a lone voice in promoting the river when it had to be mowed three times a year before the construction of three dams, remains confident in a brighter future for the river cruisers.
He notes plans are in place to add docks along the Agnew entrance to Stockyards City, the American Indian Cultural Center, which is under construction, and a planned mixed-use development at the former Downtown Airpark.
"Long term, the idea of water transit is very valid," Downes said. "And it will become more of a significant factor as development continues along the river."
Chesapeake provides support
Aubrey McClendon, chief executive officer of Chesapeake Energy, has emerged as one of the most visible advocates of the Oklahoma River, having contributed millions toward construction of two boathouses and a finish line tower for rowing regattas.
While celebrating the pledge of money toward construction of a boathouse for the University of Central Oklahoma earlier this year, McClendon pointed to a bridge built as part of the future alignment of Interstate 40 ï¿½ a span that someday will cross an extension of a canal that will extend from the Oklahoma River to the turnaround bay of the Bricktown Canal.
His only comment: Get the canal extension from the river built as soon as possible.
Operators of the Oklahoma River Cruisers agree. Jeanne Smith sees such a connection as the key to connecting the river trails with Bricktown.
Voters approved $3 million for such an extension three years ago. But the city's public works department reports the project will be one of the last 2007 bond projects to be started and likely won't be built until 2018.
In the meantime, passengers who ride the water taxis on the Bricktown Canal have no safe way to get from the south turning bay of the Bricktown Canal to the Oklahoma River Cruisers ï¿½ even though they are in eyeshot of each other.
"We're just waiting for it to happen," said Oklahoma River Cruisers Captain Stephen Stanionis. "As soon as that happens, this ferry service becomes very real between the Meridian hotel corridor and Bricktown. I wouldn't say it's life or death. But it's pretty important. We come close to Bricktown and try to be a connection. But from here to there it's not a pretty walk ï¿½ it's not a great quarter mile to travel."
A less costly ride
Oklahoma City officials initially anticipated needing to subsidize the Bricktown water taxis when they were launched in 1999. The service, run by a different operator than the river cruisers, has turned a profit for the city all but one of the past 11 years. Annual passenger counts have always exceeded 100,000 with a net profit to the city totaling about $497,000.