The Oak Bluffs harbor is a money machine for the town, but the question facing leaders after yet another record-breaking year of revenue is whether they can squeeze more cash from the operation.
With a limited number of dock slips and moorings, the most obvious option for increasing revenues is to tap into the cruise line market by revamping the town dock and luring passenger tenders away from a private dock owner.
Harbor master Todd Alexander told selectmen last week that for less than $10,000 in dock improvements, the town could host the cruise tenders and collect landing fees of $1,000 every time a cruise ship throws anchor off East Chop and sends its passengers ashore.
"We had 27 ships this year and all that money goes to a private dock," said Mr. Alexander. "With our own landing, the town controls the number of ships. The most important thing is we will get the money."
For the last two years, cruise ships have descended on the Island, and Oak Bluffs in particular. Last summer, big ocean liners made Oak Bluffs a port of call 31 times. Norwegian Cruise Lines plans to triple its Vineyard schedule next summer, and will stop in Oak Bluffs 23 times. Other cruise lines such as Regal Cruises are planning more trips, too.
But so far, town coffers haven't seen any money from the advent of cruise lines. Terry McCarthy, owner of the Dockside shopping complex, is hosting the tenders from cruise ships on his own dock.
Harbor management officials say it's time for the town to take over. For one thing, they cite the fact that Mr. McCarthy is using the town bulkhead to run his private business. Passengers from cruise-ship tenders and the Hy-Line ferry line up on the bulkhead waiting to board the boats.
"Terry McCarthy is making all the bucks and using our facilities," said Bobbie Ann Gibson, chairman of the harbor management committee.
"We're certainly concerned about the use of our dock," said Fred Sonnenberg, a member of the harbor management committee. "Terry stages the cruise boat and Hy-Line passengers right on the bulkhead, and we get an awful lot of complaints from people who can't walk down the dock because there are so many people there."
Selectmen last week backed off making any decisions about investing in the town dock to enable the landing cruise-ship tenders. But discussion quickly turned to the topic of whether the town should go after more cruise lines.
Selectman Ken Rusczyk urged his board to consider sending town officials to a cruise ship convention. "We need a plan for cruise ships and how to attract them," he said. "We have the opportunity to go to a large convention and chat people up, find out about what's going on in the rest of the cruise industry."
But selectman Richard Combra struck a note of caution about inviting more cruise liners to town.
"The board of selectmen and the harbor management committee need to talk more about what is the limit of the cruise-ship business," he said. "To this point, things have gone well, but before we start soliciting more boats, we need to talk about is this what we want?"
Mr. Combra continued, "We've nearly reached capacity. An attempt for more revenue will diminish the experience."
Yesterday, harbor management officials told the Gazette they also want to impose some limit on the number of cruise ships.
"I don't think we really want to solicit more business," said Ms. Gibson. "I don't want any more boats than we already have."
To be sure, the harbor represents one of the success stories in a town that has often been strapped for cash and struggling with fiscal issues. Mr. Alexander told selectmen in his season-end report that he expected gross revenues to crest over the $800,000 mark, a three per cent increase in income from last year.
It was a good summer by boating standards, he wrote in his report. Good weather kept the harbor moorings and docks at nearly full occupancy for both July and August. In addition to renting out boat space, the harbor staff also operates a launch service and pump-out boat.
Despite all the good news from the balance sheets, harbor officials warned selectmen that they must factor in badly needed repairs to the harbor bulkhead if they want to keep a good thing going.
According to Ms. Gibson, a study commissioned by her board three years ago reported serious deterioration of the bulkhead. "We need to take action or in three years, we're going to be in trouble," she said.
Mr. Sonnenberg asked town administrator Casey Sharpe to help the committee draft a request for proposals to plan repairs to the bulkhead and the harbor area. Dredging work still needs to be done to deepen the channel.
In addition, Mr. Alexander is pushing for a temporary shelter at the town dock where the Island Queen lands to protect passengers from the sun and rain.
Selectmen also expressed their desire to appoint Mr. Alexander for another year as harbor master and to approve a new job description which would include the duties of marina manager.
A new marina manager hired last May quit the job in June, leaving Mr. Alexander to handle all operations in the harbor. Selectmen decided to approve an in-house job posting for the new position while assuring Mr. Alexander that they gave him high marks for his work.