His next step, Capt. Sherman Baldwin tells the County Commission, is a Venice leg
Although the captain said he wished he could launch the service “in 48 hours,” the Sarasota City Commission has given TevaTan LLC — which does business as Paradise Boat Tours — six months to begin a 125-passenger ferry run between Sarasota and the Bridge Street Pier in Bradenton Beach.
In the meantime, City Attorney Robert Fournier and his staff will work to revise the 2003 water taxi ordinance under which TevaTan will operate. More importantly to the ferry service, however, Fournier also told the commissioners he would work to obtain permission from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary for TevaTan to use the space it has been leasing from the city at Centennial Park.
Thanks to a friendly amendment from Commissioner Liz Alpert, which Commissioner Susan Chapman accepted for her Feb. 21 motion, efforts will be underway as well to launch what the board members characterized as an “Uber-like,” on-demand water taxi service to provide tourists and residents alike an alternative to driving between the barrier islands and the mainland.
Additionally, Chapman’s motion called for Sherman Baldwin, captain of Paradise Boat Tours, to keep members of the Bayfront Planning Organization apprised of his efforts, as that group is working to craft a master plan for a public and cultural arts district on 42 acres of bayfront property the city owns in downtown Sarasota.
Finally, the motion included the stipulation for city staff to make certain sufficient parking spaces will be available for ferry passengers.
Mark Lyons, general manager of the city’s Parking Division, told the board he believes — based on figures Baldwin has provided — that if TevaTan uses the Coast Guard Auxiliary dock, the public will be able to park in a section of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall lot, which has 900 spaces.
He did acknowledge that the hall “gets very busy” at certain times of the year, nonetheless.
Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, has offered her strong support of the prospect of the ferry service, Lyons added.
On one point, however, the City Commission declined to support a request from Baldwin: He wanted exclusivity for a three-year period, giving him enough time to get the ferry service well established. In response to questions from commissioners, Fournier said that, by law, the City Commission could not provide that type of commitment.
“It is not a non-starter to us,” Baldwin told the board, noting that he still figured he would ask for it. “Pardon me for throwing some spaghetti against the wall,” he added laughingly.
Chapman did ask Baldwin, “What if [the ferry service] doesn’t work?”
That was the reason he was hoping for three years “of breathing room,” he explained. Nonetheless, he said, he never would have made his proposal to the city if he did not believe it would be viable.
In supporting Chapman’s motion, Commissioner Suzanne Atwell called the ferry “one more cog that we desperately need in our transportation network.”
“I also see this as economic development,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out. Especially in terms of providing alternatives to young professionals, she said, “in many ways, it can be a game changer.”
Along with 125 passengers, the 61.7-foot-long vessel will carry three crew members, according to the agenda package provided to the commissioners. Coffee and non-alcoholic beverages will be offered to passengers.
On Feb. 28, exactly a week after winning conditional approval from the City Commission, Baldwin appeared before the Sarasota County commissioners. “I’ll be approaching you, as well, about adding a Venice leg to our services,” he explained, noting that he was leaving copies of documents about his firm and the tentative routes the City Commission approved.
The Venice Train Depot — near the Intracoastal Waterway bridge — “would be the perfect stop” for a ferry, he told the county board, adding that he plans also to approach the Venice City Council in the not-too-distant future.
Details of the proposal
During about an hour of discussion on Feb. 21, Baldwin explained to the City Commission that his goal is to focus on workers and other community residents — those needing to visit Sarasota Memorial Hospital, for example — who would benefit from the ability to forgo driving between the Bradenton Beach/Anna Maria Island area and the city of Sarasota.
Tourists using the ferry, he added, “would be icing on the cake.”
His round-trip ticket cost, he noted, would be set at $12.50 per person, and monthly passes would be available. He also pointed to his plan to explore whether some businesses would be willing to participate in a special program to pay employees for their time on the ferry, to encourage their use of the service instead of driving.
As for his docking facility in Sarasota: Baldwin told the board he had investigated two other locations besides the Coast Guard Auxiliary facility in Centennial Park. The others are O’Leary’s at Bayfront Park and Marina Jack. “All three locations are perfect,” he said. The problem is that all three are under current city leases. “I think, by far, Centennial Park is the best one,” he added.
Noting that his son has been in the Coast Guard for 12 years, he said he believes in the service’s programs and its focus on safety. Regarding the Auxiliary, Baldwin continued, “I’m not asking you to play rough and tumble with them. … If we could work with them at that space, we could promote their boater safety classes, their boating safety checks.” TevaTan would be pleased to market those programs along with the ferry service, he added.
Having researched the Auxiliary’s use of the Centennial Park space, he told the board, he had found it “very sporadic. Maybe once a month for a meeting; every few months for a class. … The docking space is rarely, if ever, used.”
Within the previous couple of weeks, Parking Division Manager Lyons noted, he and his staff had reviewed the Auxiliary’s lease and found that it could be modified. However, Fournier noted, “I’m not sure they’re compelled to agree to that … but I think we can move that along fairly quickly.”
Fournier suggested that if the board members were inclined to support Baldwin’s proposal, they do so on a conditional basis while staff worked through the embarkation/debarkation issues.
About the water taxis …
Commissioner Alpert was the first to ask about the on-demand water taxi service. While she thought that was the board’s focus, she told Baldwin, “it’s sounding like it’s a fixed route.”
Smaller boats could move people back and forth from the city’s downtown to Mote Marine, for example, or Ken Thompson Park near Mote, he replied. “That was always perceived as an adjunct to us.” The ferry service would come first, he added, and then he would work to establish the on-demand water taxi runs. “My application has asked for that.”
Given his years of experience in boating, Baldwin also advised the commissioners to make certain the city regulates water taxis, to ensure they comply with boating safety regulations and carry appropriate insurance.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to have a place [to dock] on Longboat Key?” Alpert asked.
“That is the million-dollar question,” Baldwin replied. “There are no navigational opportunities in all of Longboat Key. … I have gone up that coast like a pirate looking for places to get in, and short of the Town of Longboat Key’s Bayfront Park, there is nothing.” Even to use that facility, he added, would necessitate going up “way north” to get back to the Intracoastal Waterway.”
Baldwin told the board, “We envision a smaller boat to be able to [serve that barrier island].” He has talked with Dave Bullock, manager of the Town of Longboat Key, he pointed out, and Bullock has told him the town has 75 employees who would use a ferry service to avoid having to drive back and forth to work. Additionally, Baldwin said, about 750 employees of businesses on the Gulf of Mexico potentially would be ferry customers.
“They would love to solve that [problem],” Baldwin noted of town leaders. “It’s not going to be in a ferry boat, though, unfortunately, and that’s purely from a navigational standpoint.”
When Freeland Eddie asked for clarification about any cost to the city if the board approved Baldwin’s proposal for the ferry, he responded, “We’re not asking for any money from the city.”
“That’s admirable,” Parking Division Manager Lyons pointed out. “We have talked to other companies who are asking for substantial subsidies to get this service going.”
The city would incur some cost for maintenance of the parking spaces, Lyons did tell the board.
City Manager Tom Barwin also asked about the need for restrooms at the Coast Guard Auxiliary facility — if Fournier can work out an arrangement with the leaseholders.
Lyons explained that the idea is not for people to wait an hour or 90 minutes for the ferry to arrive.
“Fifteen minutes, max,” is what it takes for the unloading and loading of passengers at the Bradenton Beach dock for the tour service he operates from that location, Baldwin noted.
During his presentation to both the City and County commissions, Baldwin said, “We’re blessed with our waterways. I know many a community in this country that would give their eye teeth to have waterways … to take some pressure off our land-based infrastructure.”