By Jim Hayden
Crossing the Kalamazoo River on the historic Saugatuck chain ferry could cost double last summer’s fare. Any change, though, will first have to go through city council, which has received two proposals to operate the hand-cranked vessel.
Council members will meet with representatives from Star of Saugatuck LLC and DMI Technologies to go over their plans to operate the ferry, then decide which to hire for the summer-long business.
This is the first time in years someone other than Marilyn Starring has operated the iconic cross-river tourist attraction.
“I thought the council would like involvement with the two applicants,” city manager Kirk Harrier said at the March 25 council meeting. Normally, city engineers would look over the request for proposals, then give their recommendations to council.
Star of Saugatuck LLC recently purchased the Star of Saugatuck paddleboat from Starring and her husband.
“With several years of customer service and the love of Saugatuck and the Kalamazoo River, we feel that our organization can accomplish the goals for the city to keep the chain ferry around for a very long time,” the company wrote in its submission.
The company would operate the ferry from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the vessel’s traditional schedule, provide training for employees, maintenance and storage for the ferry and set up an online presence for information and ticket purchase.
Star of Saugatuck LLC also requested in its proposal a 10-year lease to operate the ferry, paying the city $3,000 a year with a 7-percent increase in payment each year, according to bid document provided by the city.
In the past, the city paid Starring a management fee to operate the ferry. In 2018, the city paid her $5,775, the same as the four prior years.
DMI Technologies is co-owner and operator of a fishing vessel that also gives sunset cruises on Lake Michigan and has experience in management of contract personnel for services, according to the document provided by the city.
DMI proposes to run the ferry May 17 to Sept. 27, beyond the traditional summer season, and have a one-way fee of $2 with children under 8 free. Last season, the fare was $1. The company would provide training for employees and pay for launching, removal and maintenance of the vessel.
DMI would offer Apple Pay, free wifi hotspot, Facebook page and on-board video camera.
The request for operating proposals was made possible after a recent change to federal regulations that used to require 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 Historical Society.