Florida Keys News
Friday, January 25, 2013
City OKs duck tour it once shut down

A new "duck" tour will hit the streets and waters eight years after the city had to pay $8 million in an antitrust lawsuit for illegally shutting it down.

Commissioners approved CityView's Duck Tours Seafari 6-1 in a formality advised by the city attorney, but not without some grumbling. CityView bought Seafari from former owners that included John Murphy.

"I personally don't like any of the ducks," said Commissioner Teri Johnston before voting in favor of CityView's new venture.

Historic Tours of America (HTA) launched its own duck tour last year.

"I think they're a ridiculous form of transportation and do not belong on our narrow streets in our historic city," she said.

However, Johnston added, "I am a proponent for creating a level playing field for any sightseeing franchise."

CityView's ducks are 31-feet-long, 8-feet-wide, 13,000-pound, taxicab-yellow vehicles. CityView will start with three of the yellow vessels, modeled after the true World War II-era GMC DUKW vehicles, but has the right to bring in up to 10. Each duck seats about 28 people.

Last year, HTA launched Southernmost Duck Tours, in 39-foot-long, 8-foot-wide blue Hydra Terra amphibious vehicles that sport painted cartoon ducks and seat up to 48 people. The company dubbed the vehicles "our unique ducks."

CityView already had permission via its franchise with Key West to put "sightseeing vehicles" -- which include amphibious vehicles under the city code -- on the island's streets.

HTA also already had a franchise agreement with the city.

Duck Tours Seafari attempted to operate in Key West in the 1990s, but was shut down.

The company sued Key West and HTA, alleging that both conspired to interfere with its operation through illegal, exclusive franchise agreements for sightseeing tours, which constituted a monopoly.

HTA paid Seafari a settlement of an undisclosed amount.

The city lost the civil suit, but appealed $15 million in damages awarded to Seafari. In the midst of the appeals trial to recalculate financial damages, the city reached a settlement that granted Seafari $8 million in damages in April 2010.

Since then, Murphy, one of the former owners of Duck Tours Seafari, applied for and received a franchise agreement to once again operate the land-and-sea tours.

At the same time, HTA President Ed Swift notified then-City Manager Jim Scholl that his company planned to add amphibious vehicles to its Key West tour fleet under its existing franchise.

HTA, which operates Old Town Trolley and the Conch Tour Train in Key West, already offered amphibious tours in San Diego and Washington, D.C.

In CityView's original contract, the company put a photo of one of its trolleys as an exhibit. To perfect the agreement, the company had to come before the commission with a picture of its yellow duck.

Come February 2015, when HTA's franchise agreement with the city expires, the commission plans to review all sightseeing agreements.

For now, Key West is home to two duck tours.

CityView President Michael Thomas said Thursday the company doesn't have a specific start date, as it is still hiring and training employees and awaiting final inspection by the Coast Guard.

But as he stood before the commission Wednesday night, Thomas was treated to some hearty criticism of his company's new venture.

HTA didn't have to go through that, given its long-term contracts and licenses with the city.

Thomas wasn't the target, as commissioners linked ducks in general to congestion, safety hazards, and a hardship nuisance to residents.

Commissioner Tony Yaniz on Wednesday complained that downtown Key West has "super congestion" with cars, trolleys, trains and now ducks.

"In my opinion, it's a healthy economy," Thomas said on Thursday.

The lone dissenter was Commissioner/former Mayor Jimmy Weekley, who said his constituents want fewer sightseeing vehicles in Old Town.

"Our streets are way too narrow; congestion is getting worse as well as the impact on quality of life to residents who live in the area," said Weekley.

Commissioner Clayton Lopez agreed.

"I'm not in favor of anything that quacks," said Lopez, who remembers well the antitrust lawsuit disaster.

The 6-1 vote by the City Commission amended a Key West ordinance to allow CityView Tours the right to add the amphibious vehicles to its fleet of trolleys.

CityView's president said he felt like his company had to jump through more hoops than HTA. For instance, CityView's ducks must use only bio-diesel fuel, while HTA is burning traditional diesel. The City Commission Wednesday granted CityView a six-month grace period on using the bio-diesel, since there isn't a source in Key West.

The city, whose buses run on the more environmentally friendly bio-diesel, has its fuel trucked in, said Assistant City Manager David Fernandez.

"We have to have our own station constructed," Thomas said Thursday. "There are no gas stations that sell bio-diesel (here)."

Thomas and Vice President Greg Wythe own CityView Trolley, which already competes with HTA in both Key West and Boston.

Wythe formerly worked for HTA and was once engaged to Swift's daughter.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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