Ownership of the Chappaquiddick ferry clearly seems a good deal to a lot of people, judging by the offers Roy Hayes has received since he revealed that he is looking to sell after 19 years.
It’s not hard to see why someone would want the business — a monopoly service with an assured and growing demand.
“I have had a number of offers,” Mr. Hayes said in a recent interview. “There are people willing to sign an agreement, at a price I’m agreeable to, today.”
The question is why Mr. Hayes would want to give it up, particularly as he and his family were guaranteed the concession for 75 years by the town of Edgartown some 19 years ago.
Ask him that and he says simply: “I never go anywhere.”
Mr. Hayes said he has taken four vacations off-Island in 19 years. “It [a sale] means I can go up to Gay Head if I feel like it. As it is, if anything goes wrong, either mechanically or because someone can’t turn up to work, I have to be there.”
A guaranteed income is one thing, but the loss of personal freedom to move anywhere much except a couple of hundred yards back and forth across Edgartown Harbor is another.
Hence his announcement a few weeks ago that he was reconsidering his future, made to the surprisingly surprised Edgartown selectmen — Mr. Hayes was amazed they seemed unaware of his intentions, when so many other folks were.
“My time with the ferry is coming to an end,” he said in the telephone interview. “Not immediately, but maybe five or six years from now, when I’m 65 or 66. He continued:
“I asked the selectmen to start considering it now because I knew it would take them a couple of years to figure out what to do with the offer,” he said.
He was right.
Following his announcement, selectmen set up an 11-member committee to consider what the town will do. The committee includes Richard Knight, Bob and Fran Clay, Joel DeRoche, Stephen Warner, Rob Fynbo, Edith Potter, Robert Gurnitz, Woody Filley, John Dropick and Sharon Purdy.
They will be given six months to figure it out, and will hold posted meetings. If they conclude the town should buy the ferry, an article would be placed on a future annual town meeting warrant with sale consideration by 2009.
There is no rush to judgment on the issue. The ferry has a long and sometimes controversial history. It goes way back to the 1920s, when Chappy threatened to secede from Edgartown over the issue of lack of access — the only ferry service then being a rowboat operated by a blind man, and only when he felt like it.
Prices, hours of operation and particularly the decrepit nature of the infrastructure continued to be matters of contention between Chappy residents and the rest of Edgartown over succeeding decades.
The decision to award the 75-year concession to Mr. Hayes and his family in the early 1990s serves as a case in point.
Until then, the ferry and town operated in a unique way, with the boats owned privately, but the ramps, slips and buildings owned and maintained by the town. They became so run-down that in 1990, the town was forced to approve $300,000 to be spent on repairs.
But many people still bridled at the expenditure. An alternative plan was devised, and in June 1991, Edgartown voters approved an article allowing the selectmen to transfer ownership to the Edgartown Ferry Inc, owned by Roy and Debbie Hayes.
They also decided to put the $300,000 “back in their pockets”, as the Gazette reported at the time, and leave the costs of repairs to the private owners.
The agreement took two years to conclude, but in mid 1993, the Hayes family was awarded the ferry concession for 75 years. But the town built in a provision allowing it to take back possession at any time if it paid the Hayes family for the improvements made, up to $350,000.
Three months later the transfer also won approval from the state legislature.
The town also maintained some say over cash fares, with owners showing their books privately to the selectmen before any increases were allowed.
The private arrangement was the subject of some controversy. In 1991, the president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, Henry A. Tilghman, complained that as the business was a monopoly, there was no reason the books should be kept secret. They could not be commercial in confidence, he argued, because the ferry was a monopoly, meaning no competitors could benefit by the knowledge.
“The town has always provided ferry service to Chappy by licensing the ferry, and it has always been considered an extension of the state highway system. Now they want to save money by privatizing it. Well, now is the time to take a good long look at it,” he said.
That they did, but the finances remain confidential.
But the town achieved its primary objective: Mr. Hayes fixed up the ramps and improved the service. He estimates that over the years he has spent around $500,000 on infrastructure.
“You put into it all the money that it takes to maintain a good service,” he said. “I just spent another $125,000 on repairing the slips and $180,000 on the ramps,” he said.
The question now for the town is whether it will exercise its right of first refusal for the business, or simply allow Mr. Hayes to pass it to another private owner. He expects to get market value for boats, infrastructure and goodwill, whoever buys it, but can see an advantage for the town. “I pay personal income tax on what I make; they wouldn’t,” he said.
“The finances are a non-issue to me,” he added.
He admitted he has potential buyers queued up.
His greater concern is planning what to do next. And while he might take the odd trip to Gay Head, just because he can, and might take some time off-Island, he will certainly be staying on the Vineyard, and not retiring.
“My life is here,” he said. “I’m going to go back to making furniture, which is what I did before the ferry.”