ST. MARYS, Ga. - Jerry Brandon's livelihood depends on visitors to Cumberland Island National Seashore.
As many as 80 percent of guests who stay at his Riverview Hotel go to the barrier island on a 148-passenger ferry that departs from a National Park Service dock less than a block away.
Now, the operating contract for the vendor who has provided the ferry service for the past 25 years is about to expire, and one potential bidder wants visitors to depart to the national seashore from Fernandina Beach.
Although Fernandina Beach is closer than St. Marys to Cumberland Island, it takes about 40 minutes to get there from either departure point, because of speed restrictions on the Fernandina River.
"The reason they want it in Fernandina Beach is the same reason we want it to stay here, to help the economy," Brandon said. "They have been pushing for this for a while."
If a change happens, Brandon says it would have a catastrophic impact on his business and others in the city dependent on Cumberland Island tourists.
"It would be devastating if the park service left," he said. "It would be a big blow."
Business leaders in Fernandina Beach have been trying for years to generate political support to allow boats to shuttle passengers to Cumberland Island from the city's marina. As recently as 2008, some businessmen tried to generate the political support for a proposal to provide passenger service to the island from Florida. The effort failed.
St. Marys businessman Calvin Lang says his contract to provide the ferry service expires in August, and he hasn't decided if he will bid again. "I'm just waiting to see," he said. "Anybody could bid on it if they wanted."
St. Marys lawyer Jim Stein says he was hired more than two decades ago to represent Lang when Florida and Georgia officials debated the departure location to the island. "It was a Georgia site (in the National Park Service) and Georgia departure site," he said. "The effort has always been to keep it in downtown St. Marys."
Stein says it doesn't make sense to consider any other location as a departure point, regardless of who gets the new contract to provide the service, because the National Park Service has its administrative offices, a museum and visitors center near the dock in St. Marys where passengers board the ferry to the island.
"They've got the infrastructure here. They've got the people here," Stein said. "This has been a working relationship for years."
Regional park service officials in Atlanta said the people responsible for the contract for ferry service to the island were not in the office Monday to answer questions about the criteria considered beyond the lowest bid when a contract is awarded.
During an upcoming visit to meet with various federal officials in Washington, city officials plan to meet with Department of Interior officials to discuss Cumberland Island, the contract and other issues.
One of the subjects will be about increasing the number of visitors allowed on the island each day. Currently, the limit is 300 visitors a day, a number local merchants and elected officials say is too low.
Hotel operator Brandon, who was St. Marys mayor for a decade and on city council for four years, says the number of visitors was arbitrarily based on the number of passengers the ferry could shuttle to and from the island in one trip.
"The original plan for 300 people a day is because the ferry held 150 people and went to the island twice a day," he said.
Brandon says he believes the park service could double the number of visitors allowed each day without a negative impact on the island. "A lot of times you can go on the beach and not see anyone," he said.
Increasing the number of visitors would help his business, Brandon said.
"It would help everyone in St. Marys, as far as businesses go," he said. "A lot of times we don't get reservations or we lose them because people can't get on the boat. Nobody's going to come if they can't get on the boat."
Lang, however, says increasing the number of visitors allowed on the island each day poses a challenge for him. He's trying to keep ferry prices as low as possible.
"There would have to be changes with the schedule," he said. "We would probably have to get another boat, and they're expensive."
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