NORTH KINGSTOWN — The board of directors for the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce plans to formally oppose R.I. Fast Ferry’s plans to offer high-speed service between Quonset and Block Island, citing the negative impact it could have on businesses in Galilee.
“It would be redistributing the wealth and we’d like to protect the businesses in Galilee,” said Deb Kelso, the chamber’s executive director.
She said there was a “vigorous” debate among the 14-member board at the Chamber’s regular meeting on July 24 before the vote was taken. The board voted to oppose R.I. Fast Ferry’s application to the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. Kelso said the board had not made the decision public, but would be issuing a letter outlining the specific reasons against the proposed ferry service.
“It was based on the anticipated loss of traffic in Galilee,” Kelso said.
Last month, R.I. Fast Ferry founder and owner Charles Donadio Jr. announced he applied for a license with state regulators to provide high-speed ferry service between Quonset and Block Island. His company offers high-speed service between Quonset and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
If approved, Donadio said he plans to invest between $6 and $7 million to build a new aluminum catamaran fast ferry that would carry between 150 and 300 passengers on the 30-mile route across Block Island Sound – a ride that would take approximately 50 minutes depending on the number of passengers, the amount of luggage on board and weather conditions.
The PUC has scheduled a pre-hearing conference on the license Aug. 21 at 10 a.m. Kelso said an opposition letter would be filed with the office prior to the hearing. The conference is not open to the public and no decision will be made on the application at that time, according to PUC spokesman Tom Kogut.
“They will basically establish a rough outline of how the process is going to move forward,” Kogut said, adding the PUC has already received a letter supporting the application from the North Kingstown Town Council.
Donadio is a Narragansett resident, a member of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce and a former member of its board of directors. He previously owned and operated the Athena, which began offering high-speed ferry service to and from Block Island in 2001 after a lengthy legal battle with Interstate Navigation, the company that – at that time – ran traditional ferry service to Galilee. He sold his ownership stake in the high-speed ferry service to Interstate Navigation soon after, and started R.I. Fast Ferry, which began offering service to Martha’s Vineyard in 2003.
Interstate Navigation now operates traditional and high-speed ferries from Galilee, and a high-speed ferry between Newport and Block Island.
On Tuesday, Donadio said he was baffled by the Narragansett Chamber’s decision to oppose his business’ expansion.
“This is America,” he said. “Anybody can start up a business if they want to.”
Donadio said he was disappointed he was not invited to the meeting to answer any questions or address any concerns that members might have had. He also questioned why the chamber did not oppose Interstate Navigation’s high-speed ferry service from Newport to Block Island, which started this year.
“It’s a sad thing that they did this and I’m obviously disappointed,” Donadio said.
He said he wasn’t aware of any businesses that made a complaint and alleged the move was a “political” one directed by Kelso.
“It’s a fact that an employee of the Block Island Ferry sits of the board of directors,” Donadio said, referring to Megan Moran, director of group sales for Interstate Navigation, who is the immediate past chairwoman of the Chamber’s board of directors – a role that is part of the Chamber’s governing board.
Moran did not return two phone calls seeking comment for this story.
“I don’t think the Chamber is in the position to pick one member over another,” Donadio said. “I don’t know how [Kelso] came up with a factual economics of how a ferry service will affect potential profits for other businesses. Is the Chamber going to fight every restaurant that opens up in Narragansett now because it might take away from existing businesses? You have to draw the line as to what the goal of the Chamber of Commerce is. I think this is beyond the scope of what a chamber of commerce is supposed to be doing. I’ve been a member of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce for more than 15 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Kevin Durfee, owner of George’s of Galilee and a member of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce and the Narragansett Economic Development Committee, said he doesn’t understand the board’s objection. He reasoned the Quonset ferry service could be a “boon” for Galilee and Narragansett.
“We are the largest employer in Narragansett and the largest business in Galilee, and if you ask any business owner in Galilee what the biggest problem is, they’ll say it’s the parking,” Durfee said. “Most of the parking in Galilee is solely dedicated for the people who go to Block Island…If you ask some people about Galilee, they’ll tell you that it’s nothing but a big, giant parking lot for Block Island. People come here and park their cars, go to Block Island for the weekend, spend all their money and come back here and drive away. As a restaurant owner, if another ferry were to operate somewhere else and alleviate some of the parking so people can come and visit the businesses in Galilee, I’d say it’s a good thing.”
Donadio said offering service to Block Island is “a natural fit” for the company because of the location, the five acres of dockside parking and the inter-modal bus and train connections to and from T.F. Green Airport and Amtrak train stations.
He also said hopping on a ferry from Quonset Point to Block Island would save hours of drive time and remove thousands of cars from routes 1 and 4, two busy highways to the beach during the summer months.
Reporter Chris Church can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.