A UNC marketing professor is pitching a plan to put high-speed ferries on North Carolina’s vast Albemarle Sound, which he says is the nation’s largest inland body of water without ferry service.
Nicholas Didow of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School presented the Harbor Town Project, as the ferry plan is called, to civic leaders in Elizabeth City on Tuesday. Didow works on economic development projects in rural North Carolina and says ferries could breathe new life into the small towns that tourists often zoom past on their way to the beach.
State ferries have for decades carried passengers and vehicles between North Carolina’s mainland and the Outer Banks, crossing Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke. But no state routes cross the Albemarle Sound on the northeastern coast, a rural region that tourism promoters call the Inner Banks.
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The first phase of Didow’s plan would link five towns, ecotourism sites and historic places on the inland side of the Albemarle Sound, Elizabeth City’s Daily Advance reported.
Didow envisions five catamaran-style ferries running from Elizabeth City to Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, Columbia, and to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks. The state Department of Transportation is building a similar high-speed catamaran ferry that it expects to start serving Hatteras and Ocracoke islands this summer.
Didow estimates the fleet would cost $13.8 million to launch and nearly $2 million a year to operate, the Advance reported.
The money could come from public, private and foundation sources such as the Golden LEAF Foundation, which makes grants from North Carolina’s share of a 1999 settlement between the federal government and cigarette makers. Didow previously helped expand broadband internet service to northeastern North Carolina, using Golden LEAF grants.
The second and third phases of the Harbor Town Project would update the docks and historic downtowns of the five inland towns, and improve ecotourism and historic sites to make them more appealing to tourists.
Conservative estimates are that the ferries could carry 107,000 passengers in the first year, stimulate $14 million in added tourism spending and generate at least 94 full-time jobs, Didow told the Elizabeth City gathering, the Outer Banks Voice reported.
“I’m hoping this can bridge the gap between the Inner Banks and Outer Banks,” he said. “It would be mutually beneficial, bringing tourism growth to both sides.”
Some at the Tuesday meeting questioned a proposed ferry route from Edenton to Kitty Hawk, which they said could benefit Edenton more than the other inland downs. But Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth said he supports the proposal, the Daily Advance reported.
“It’s actually disappointing this didn’t happen 25 years ago,” Roth said. “We could be a quarter of a century ahead of where we are today.”
Didow will present the proposal to Gov. Roy Cooper in late March, the project’s Facebook page said. Cooper has previously voiced support for new ideas to invigorate rural North Carolina.