Nov 16 2006

Ferry may bring good fortune to Wilcox

Birmingham News

By Tom Gordon

The Gee's Bend ferry has been operating for two months without any major foul-ups, and officials in surrounding Wilcox County are discussing how it can draw more needed tourist dollars.

Those dollars will become more important if, as expected, the state Department of Transportation hands oversight of the ferry to the Wilcox County Commission 10 months from now. Since it was launched Sept. 18, the 100-foot-long, 42-foot-wide boat has averaged about 39 passengers a day. That's not nearly enough for the ferry to pay for itself, but no one expected that to happen when the boat began crossing the Alabama River.

Still, the more money the ferry is able to generate, the fewer public dollars it will require.

"This is not going to be self-sustaining," said Tom Mitchell, general manager for the Alabama subsidiary of Hornblower Marine Services, which is operating the ferry for the state Department of Transportation. "We don't have enough ridership every single day to ever pay one of the deckhands' salaries, period."

Mitchell made his comments at a Tuesday luncheon of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce. With him was Mike Wilson, an ALDOT contract engineer who was involved in the state's effort to get the ferry running.

Earlier that morning, the two had ridden the ferry from its landing near Camden to and from Gee's Bend, a community long known for its isolation, poverty and talented quilters. Gee's Bend had ferry service for years, but the service stopped in 1962.

Now that ferry service has been restored, the boat is drawing riders not only from the surrounding areas, but also from around the state and beyond.

On the mid-morning ride Tuesday with Wilson and Mitchell was a van from Tuskegee's Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. Church clerk Mickie Peterson was at the wheel, and her passengers were five members of the church's Best Years Singles Ministry. Wednesday morning, Peterson said that after arriving at Gee's Bend, she and her fellow travelers purchased post cards and quilting videos and that she was able to put a seam in a yet-to-be-completed quilt.

"Everybody had a good time," Peterson said.

Hot ticket:

In Wilcox, one of the state's most impoverished counties, those words are what business and political leaders want to hear - many times over.

"The ferry, I think, is one of the hottest tickets in the southeastern part of the country," outgoing Wilcox chamber President John Matthews said at the Tuesday luncheon. Matthews said the ferry could be an attraction to bring visitors to the area's annual summer fireworks festival in June.

"We want to be part of that," said Mitchell, who said he receives about 100 calls a week from people expressing interest in the ferry and Gee's Bend. But that interest will grow if more tourist-friendly amenities are added on the Gee's Bend side of the river, he said.

"Are we ready to have an influx of tourism right now?" he asked. "How far do you want to take this? I can fill this boat up. We can do it. But are you ready on the Gee's Bend side? You're not, right now. If you want to take this thing national, which is what is happening, there's got to be something for those people to see."

Mitchell was talking about more than what he described as "a warehouse of quilts," the building alongside the Gee's Bend Volunteer Fire Department where some quilts can be viewed and purchased. He was talking about a restaurant and accessible restrooms. Without those kinds of additions, he said, "folks won't come back."

Sitting across from Mitchell, Wilcox County Commissioner Mark Curl said one possible solution would be tourist-friendly terminals at both of the ferry's landings. The terminals could feature video presentations, historical displays and other items of interest, Curl said. The rub, right now, is how to pay for them.

The commission wants to use part of a $2 million grant obtained by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby for the ferry. Part of that grant will be used to pay half of the ferry's operating costs that are not covered by passenger fees, and Curl said ALDOT has been asking whether any of the grant money can be used for the proposed terminals. Curl said such a use would be proper and legal.

"The commission is not going to give in on the two terminals," Curl said. "They stand firm on that."

Cooperation:

At ALDOT, spokesman Tony Harris said he hoped the County Commission and business leaders could "work together to address" building the terminals and using the ferry more effectively to draw in tourists.

In the meantime, Harris said, "I think it's clear that we expect them to make plans during this year to be prepared to take over the ferry operations."

As for the federal grant money, Harris said, "We're still of the opinion that the funds can only be used for the operation and maintenance of that ferry."

For now, local residents who ride the ferry - and those who work on it -are glad to have it. Tuesday, as the boat's scheduled 11:15 a.m. crossing time approached on the Camden side of the river, Mary Ann Pettway drove her pickup onto the boat, and deckhand Johnnie Moore collected a fare of $3 for Pettway and her vehicle and an additional $1 for her passenger, cousin Jone Mosely.

Asked what she thought of the ferry, Pettway said, "I love it'cause it's quicker for me to get back and forth to home."

The mild morning weather promised a scenic bonus. The river's surface was calm, and hardwoods along its banks were variations of orange, red, yellow and raspberry. A great blue heron and some white egrets flew above the trees, and near the Camden landing, a water turtle was sunning itself on the submerged remnants of a tree trunk. On warmer days, the crew has seen alligators.

"It's a tough job," Mitchell said as the ferry moved downriver toward Gee's Bend. "But somebody's got to do it."