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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.
by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: July 11, 2010 at 1:25 pm •  Published: July 11, 2010

/articleid/3475221/1/pictures/1022886">Photo - The Oklahoma River Cruisers, shown in this 2008 photo, carried thousands of passengers during the first year operation but have seen diminished ridership ever since.
 <strong>BRYAN TERRY - THE OKLAHOMAN</strong>
The Oklahoma River Cruisers, shown in this 2008 photo, carried thousands of passengers during the first year operation but have seen diminished ridership ever since. BRYAN TERRY - THE OKLAHOMAN

"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."

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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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 � 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 � 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 � 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.


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