Oklahoma City's riverboat gamble not paying off yet
Oklahoma City will pay $2.7 million to subsidize cruises along the Oklahoma River over the first three years, but passengers counts are light and in decline.
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.
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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.
"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.