By Jim Hayden
The Saugatuck Chain Ferry will be cranking across the Kalamazoo River again this summer — with a new manager and a higher fare.
City council Monday approved a contract with Star of Saugatuck LLC to operate the historic vessel for five years, with an automatic renewal for five more years. DMI Technologies also bid on the contract.
“The council wanted to make sure the operation continued,” said city manager Kirk Harrier.
The new operator will pay the city $3,000 the first year of the agreement. That payment will increase 7 percent each year after that. The private company keeps the profits from the operation.
Star of Saugatuck LLC acquired the touring paddleboat with that name last year from its longtime operator Marilyn Starring on her retirement.
In the past, the city paid Starring a management fee to operate the chain ferry. In 2018, that payment was $5,775, the same as the four before that. The city kept the profits from the operation.
In the budget year 2017-2018, chain ferry fees brought in $34,400, according to city records. Saugatuck spent $30,065 on items including salaries, supplies, uniforms, insurance, repairs and maintenance.
In 2016-2017, the ferry brought in $23,678 and city spent $22,580.
The ferry will operate from Memorial Day through Labor Day and will cost $2 for a one-way crossing. Last year, the fee was $1.
Star of Saugatuck LLC recently purchased the Star of Saugatuck paddle boat from Starring and her husband, leaving the city in need of a new operator of the ferry boat named “Diane.”
Council met with representatives from Star of Saugatuck LLC and DMI Technologies to go over their plans to operate the ferry, then decided which to hire for the summer-long business.
This is the first time in years someone other than Starring will operate the iconic cross-river tourist attraction.
The request for operating proposals was made possible after a recent change to federal regulations that required a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain subject to random drug testing be aboard the vessel that uses a chain and sprocket to float about 300 feet across the water.
The rules changed late last year thanks to federal action by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, at the urging of Saugatuck officials who said the regulations were costly and burdensome.
Last summer, the chain ferry had to close the week before the busy Labor Day weekend because no captains were available.
A chain ferry has been crossing the Kalamazoo River since 1857, according to the Saugatuck-Douglas History Center.