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Save that ferry!


I was going to wait a week or so to make up my mind about the ferry rescue --- get more information, interview more people.

            But for pete's sake: The answer's as clear as day. We need to save the ferry and get it back in operation.

            The ferry's good for Rochester. It's good for Greater Rochester. It's good for the region. It's good for the state.

            And: Saving the ferry is not the sole responsibility of the City of Rochester. It's everybody's responsibility. And everybody ought to start stepping up to the plate.


            Mayor Bill Johnson has concluded that Canadian American Transportation Systems, which shut down the ferry service after 12 weeks' operation, probably won't come up with enough money to restart it. And Johnson has concluded --- correctly --- that if we don't act fast, we'll lose the ferry. CATS' major lenders have started foreclosure proceedings on the ferry.

            Johnson proposes that a city-appointed public authority buy and operate the ferry. But there are formidable obstacles in his way, starting with city council. Johnson's plan involves risk --- risk to Rochester taxpayers. And councilmembers are doing exactly what they should be doing: questioning, probing, worrying, looking out for their constituents' interests.

            It's not at all certain that a majority of the councilmembers will go along with the mayor. Even if they do, Johnson has to convince members of the state legislature to create the new authority.

            He has to do all this convincing fast. Otherwise, CATS' lenders will conclude that Johnson, like CATS, can't restart the ferry and pay the bills, and they'll take the ferry and sell it.

            A few local business leaders looked into investing in the ferry themselves but apparently decided it wouldn't be a good business venture. And everyone else --- business groups, business leaders, institutions, government officials --- everyone else is sitting back as if the ferry's fate has nothing to do with them. As if a ferry failure will have no effect on them.

            They are dead wrong. And there is something they can do.

            Remember the Hyatt Hotel construction? That private venture was close to failure back in the 1980's. The hotel's Buffalo developer ran into problems, work stopped, and the building's shell sat on Main Street for an embarrassingly long time.

            The project was saved by a group of local business and community leaders, who contributed about $10 million to get the hotel completed. The investors: Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Wilmorite, Wegmans, Frontier, RG&E, Chase bank, and the Gleason Memorial Fund.

            The goal was to get the hotel completed and sold to another private owner.

            The plan worked. The building was completed, sold to a Canadian investment group, and put into operation.

            And in the end, the investors got about two-thirds of their money back, says Karen Noble Hanson, who at the time was a vice president at Wilmorite. But they entered the deal figuring that they might not get back a dime, says Hanson. They did it because they believed the community needed a first-class hotel downtown. They did it as an investment in the community.

            Think of that!

            I'd love for a private firm to own and operate the ferry. That's simply not going to happen, not without substantial public investment. And if the public's going to put any more money into this, Johnson's public-ownership plan makes the most sense.

            There may be other options, though. Maybe, says Hanson, business leaders could invest part of what's needed to buy the ferry, and a public authority could bond the rest. That would lower the amount the authority had to bond, and lower the debt repayment.

            Would the ferry still be a risk? Of course. Some city councilmembers seem to want Johnson to guarantee that the ferry would never need public funds. That's impossible. But if there were private investment --- investment in the community --- the yearly costs, and thus the public risk, would be lowered.

            And the risk to the public could be spread if the leaders of other governments --- MonroeCounty, Finger Lakes counties --- signed on. They should sign on.

            Everybody should sign on. This is an important regional asset. People ought to be beating down the doors of City Hall to offer to help get the ferry back in operation. Instead, there's silence, and a drama building between Rochester's mayor and the members of its city council.

            What a place to live!