The National Park Service has awarded a new contract for ferry service to Dry Tortugas National Park, effectively ending 14 years of service by another local charter business.
The Yankee Freedom II had the winning bid and will be the only boat to carry passengers to the remote park, which is 70 miles west of Key West.
The boat, owned by Yankee Roamer Inc. and operated by Historic Tours of America (HTA), is one of only two that currently have a contract for daily service to the park, which also is home to historic Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort. The other ferry operator, Sunny Days, will have to cease its ferry operations once the new contract goes into effect in the next 75 to 100 days.
Sunny Days has been running trips to the Dry Tortugas since 1996. The company will lay off several employees and find another use for its Fast Cat catamaran, owner Sonny Eymann said.
"It's the day of reckoning that we knew was coming," Eymann said. "It's part of government taking over private enterprise. They're doing us in."
The park service and Yankee Freedom's owners are still negotiating the details of the 10-year contract, which then must be sent to Congress for a mandatory 60-day review period, said Bill Reynolds, assistant regional director for communications for the National Park Service.
The Yankee Freedom II will be allowed to carry 150 people to the park, up from 100, under the new contract. That number is still less than the 200 people that were allowed at the park on a given day with two boats each carrying 100 passengers.
Park managers approved a plan in July 2000 to limit the negative effects on the park and protect the environment, which included limiting the number of daily visitors.
Yankee Freedom owner Carol Hill said she and her husband are planning to switch to a larger boat, the Yankee Freedom III, to accommodate guests more comfortably on the trip, which can take nearly three hours.
Hill said they haven't decided whether they will build or buy a new boat, or when it will be in operation. Until then, the Yankee Freedom II, which is certified to carry 250 people, can easily transport 150 passengers, Hill said.
HTA will continue to run the shore side of the operation, including ticket booths and sales and marketing.
Yankee Freedom also has a long history when it comes to the Dry Tortugas. The boat began making fishing trips to the park in 1978. It added overnight bird-watching trips in 1985, and has been making daily ferry trips since 1994.
Both Reynolds and Hill declined to comment on how much the business is required to pay the park service annually under the terms of the contract. However, Bill Fay, chief of commercial visitors services, told The Citizen in 2008 that the winning bidder would have to pay 8.5 percent of its gross revenue.
"While we're in the process of still devising the contract, we're probably not at liberty to disclose that," Reynolds said. "That is the minimum required by the prospectus."
The contract generates about $5 million in gross revenue for the park service each year, he said.
The park service previously has said it wanted to deal with one ferry provider instead of two because it was more economically feasible and easier to have consistency.
Several bidders disagreed with the move at the time -- including Yankee Freedom -- saying it would create a monopoly and that the lack of competition could lead to higher rates. The park service has the authority to regulate ticket prices.
Yankee Freedom currently charges $160 for adults, $150 for students, seniors and people with a military ID, and $99 for locals. Those rates are about $10 higher than what the company charged two years ago, a result of higher gas prices, Hill said.
Hill said she doesn't plan to raise rates as long as her insurance and fuel costs do not increase.
"I think that we can start with the figure that we have been charging and see what the economy does," she said.
As for Sunny Days, the company has been trying to ramp up business for its dolphin and snorkel charters, knowing it likely would not be the winning bidder on the new Dry Tortugas contract because it does not have a boat large enough to carry the 150 passengers under the new guidelines, Eymann said.
Three months ago, the company launched a new snorkel charter to Looe Key to diversify operations and compensate for lost revenue when it must cease its Dry Tortugas trips, currently its primary source of revenue.
All four companies that submitted bids -- the park service would not release the names of the other two -- have been waiting with bated breath for more than 18 months to find out who would be the sole provider for ferry service.
"Yes, it's been a lot of waiting involved, and a lot of putting your business on hold until you find out if you got it or not," Hill said.
The request for proposals was issued in May 2008, but the contract decision was delayed when Sunny Days filed a complaint with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in August 2008, saying the bid solicitation did not follow federal guidelines. Some competitors claimed at the time that it was just a stall tactic by Sunny Days.
The park service responded by reissuing the bids.
The process was further delayed by an illness of one of the panel members evaluating the proposals, who eventually had to be replaced, Reynolds said. The documents also required extensive review by the National Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., and its legal teams.
"We want to make sure that we get it right and we do the right job so that we can provide ultimately the best service and a great experience for our visitors," Reynolds said.