Buquebus has one last chance to make good on its promised ferry service from Fort Myers to Key West.
By Stacie Kress Booker
On the Caloosahatchee River in historic downtown Fort Myers sits a new, $1.6-million ferry terminal -- vacant. A $15-million, 150-foot, high-speed ferry that was to shuttle up to 500 passengers a day between Fort Myers and Key West sits unfinished in a New York boatyard. Both the terminal and the boat are the work of an Argentinian company called Buquebus, which made a deal with Fort Myers officials four years ago that it has so far been unable to keep.
Buquebus executives said the terminal would attract tourists and stimulate growth in Fort Myers, whose population grew by only 2% last year. The ferry would transport passengers to Key West in just three hours, with tickets costing $55 and $75 each way.
Eager to believe projections that the ferry would generate $900,000 in economic impact, Fort Myers officials shelled out more than $1 million to complete the terminal, improve road access to it and fortify the seawall. Today, however, "we're sitting here with an empty building," says a frustrated Mayor Jim Humphrey. With the opening of travel to Cuba looming in the future, Key West officials also were eager for the ferry service and also have an empty, unfinished terminal on their hands.
Buquebus blames its troubles on a weakening South American economy, rising fuel costs and litigation with the boat builder. It has failed to attract investors. Last year, Caterpillar Inc., which owns a stake in the boat, had agreed to take over the project from Buquebus but pulled out because of environmental concerns at the Key West terminal.
Buquebus, which was to own and operate the terminals, has handed over the buildings to city officials in both places, promising to pay rent. The company hasn't paid a dime, however. Buquebus claims new investors are on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Humphrey and Key West officials have given Buquebus an ultimatum: Have the passenger ferry in dock by Jan. 1, or the deal is off. They think they can find another company to run a ferry. Humphrey says he's lost confidence in Buquebus but still thinks the idea of a high-speed ferry is viable and would be a tourist magnet for his city. "We don't have the resources of a Naples or Sarasota," he says. "We need to attract more affluent families to spend time in our community."
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