As Jacksonville City Hall tries to relaunch the downtown water taxi service that’s been shut down since June 6, the National Park Service is running into its own problems starting boat tours of the Timucuan Preserve.


The National Park Service wanted to have those new tours begin this summer, coinciding with the 450th anniversary of Ft. Caroline, the French settlement that would be one of the stops on the guided boat trips.

But delays in contracting with a company have cast doubt on whether the boats will be up and running this year.

“It’s a good guess that it will likely be pushed out to next spring,” Timucuan Preserve Superintendent Barbara Goodman said Tuesday. “I hate to say it, though. We’ve been working on this so long, and it’s disappointing to have the delays.

“It’s still going to happen,” she said.

For those who envision the River City eventually having boat shuttles running from downtown to the Timicuan Preserve, the National Park Service’s plan would have been the next piece in that system.

But as it stands, just getting the downtown and Timucuan Preserve boats in the water is proving difficult.

Both Jacksonville and the National Park Service are seeking contracts to run the boats, based on service standards set by the government entities.

It’s not easy for small business owners to meet those minimum requirements while also making a profit when they factor in costs such as diesel fuel, insurance and docking fees, said Kevin McCarthy, owner of Amelia River Cruises and Charters, a Fernandina Beach business that offers five daily cruises.

He said he considered seeking the Timucuan Preserve contract but decided the service level set by the National Park Service would be too much, too soon. “In my opinion, they were a bit too aggressive,” he said. “I just didn’t see that much business right off the bat.”

In the case of Jacksonville’s downtown water taxis, they provide about 107,600 one-way trips annually, with July being the busiest month at 13,300 trips, according to city figures.

But those figures were based on when all the downtown water taxi stops were open. Two of the Southbank stops are temporarily closed during construction of a new Southbank Riverwalk, which Baltimore-based HarborCare LLC cited as part of the business uncertainty that caused it to stop operations June 6.

The city will open proposals July 16 from companies seeking to replace HarborCare. It could take a couple of months to review the proposals and negotiate a contract with the top choice.

In the meantime, the second of two water taxis that city officials contracted to buy in June — but never took ownership of — was delivered Tuesday to Sadler Point Marina on Jacksonville’s Westside.

The 102-seat Native Choice will apparently wait there until the city and Beaver Street Fisheries Chairman Harry Frisch come to some agreement on Frisch’s offer to buy the big boat as well as the 50-seat Sea Charm 1, then lease them to the city for a few months at a token rate and sell them to some still-unidentified long-term owner.

Robbie Cunningham, owner of Trident Pontoons in Tavares, which sold the boats, said his understanding was that the Frisch would buy the boats and the money the city had sent his company earlier would be returned.

That deal hadn’t been consummated Tuesday either, but the city and Frisch were “very, very close,” said Councilman Matt Schellenberg, who had acted as a liaison for Frisch.

Schellenberg said a deal could be finalized within days. Details about insurance requirements had been worked out, he said, but there was still other minutiae to get through.

If that gets resolved, the city apparently still needs to sign up someone to operate the boats.

Atlantic Beach Commissioner Jimmy Hill, who owns specialty marine company Multi Marine Services, said Tuesday he has talked to Jacksonville officials and is interested in staffing the boats, but hasn’t signed a contract yet.

“We’re standing by to fill a void,” Hill said. “We’d hate to see that service go away. We think this is so crucial to downtown’s success.” He said water-taxi captains who had staffed the service before Baltimore-based HarborCare LLC shut down its local operation last month are ready to go back to work through his company, if the city signs an agreement for Multi Marin to do short-term work.

Hill said he’d like to see the boats — they shouldn’t be called water taxis, Hill said; they’re really shuttles — marketed better to get more use by tourists and the general public.

Hill said he might also be interested in a long-term contract, but would want to see how the short-term gig works first.

“If we do a good job at it and we don’t bleed money .. we’d be interested,” he said.

Six companies attended a pre-bid conference Tuesday. The city won’t know until bid-opening July 16 about how many companies will actually seek the contract, but officials were encouraged by the turnout.

“That’s outstanding compared to the response we had previously,” Greg Pease, chief of the city’s procurement division, after seeing a show of hands from those planning to make bids.

HarborCare was the only company that sought the contract earlier this year. (904) 359-4581 (904) 359-4263