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.