Whale Watch, Ferry Operation Eyes Sandwich Marina

The owner of a long-standing whale watch tour company was in town this week talking about opening up shop at the Sandwich Marina.

Meeting with members of the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation Monday, Robert Avila, owner of Captain John Whale Watching and Fishing Tours, said he would also consider running a ferry service from the marina to Provincetown.

Mr. Avila told the group that his business, which is currently based in Plymouth, services 75,000 customers a year; people who, in turn, spend money at area restaurants and stores. He also said that he hires approximately 100 people throughout the summer, providing jobs for people from college age to senior citizens.

Mr. Avila said if he were to open up shop in Sandwich, all he would need to conduct his business is a booth with a telephone and permission to use the deep water dock space along the Cape Cod Canal directly in front of the canal power plant. He said that not only can he offer whale watching tours but also ferry service from Sandwich to Provincetown, a service that SEIC President Timothy B. Cooney has been sounding the trumpet for in recent meetings.

"Particularly for the folks coming in from New York and New Jersey who frequent Provincetown, that would be an ideal alternative for them to avoid the long journey on the mid-Cape," Mr. Cooney said, suggesting that it would be a "booming success."

"It could be called the Sandwich Whale Watch, the Sandwich Ferry, whatever, I know that instantly you could do business in town," Mr. Avila said. He told the group that one of the problems posed by town officials when he previously tried to bring his business to the marina was a question about where customers would park. Mr. Avila suggested that the town put to use school buses that are not used during the summer, and shuttle people from the town's schools.

The SEIC vice president, Richard H. Johnson said that the area "does not need another restaurant and it's not big enough for a hotel."

"The more I think about it, Captain John's office and a boat that could dock on the entrance to the harbor there, which I understand is possible, seem to me to be pretty high on my evaluation of what would be the best use of that land," he said.

While members of the SEIC agreed that expanding operations at the marina to include commercial ventures is good for the town, with the added revenue from an expanded tax base, the group also understands that a major stumbling block to clear is approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, which actually owns the marina.

"The town has limited ability to exert its influence there, and there's a lot of regulations and multiple departments and organizations that you have to jump the hurdle in order to get anything done over there," Mr. Cooney said.

SEIC Member Denise M. Dever told the committee that, as a member of the Sandwich Chamber of Commerce, she has been having dealings with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers through her work on the Cape Cod Canal Centennial Celebration that is coming up in 2014. Ms. Dever told the committee that the Army Corps has been working "very cooperatively."

Given approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, the town would then need to negotiate a deal with GenOn, the current owners of the canal power plant. A deepwater dock, where it is proposed that the Captain John boats would pick up and discharge passengers, is located in front of the plant. GenOn representative Chip Little attended Monday's meeting.

Mr. Cooney pointed out that the docks in front of the plant were primarily used for offloading the oil used to generate the plant's electricity. Mr. Cooney commented that the prospects for the continued unloading of oil at the plant in the future are "not what they used to be," a statement to which Mr. Little agreed.

"That being said there's real estate there that's not being used to its highest and best use, but the Army Corps, because that abuts or is in the canal itself, still has jurisdiction over what happens there," Mr. Cooney said.

Mr. Cooney further laid out the benefits of GenOn getting on board with the SEIC in their efforts to bring ferry service to Sandwich by expounding on the environmental good such a move would be.

"Think about how many cars you would be taking off the road, creating smog up and down the mid-Cape," he said. He added that the whale watching provides educational opportunities for schoolchildren in the area.

Mr. Little said that the company would likely be willing to negotiate with the town on what to do with the plant property. The plant has had trouble competing in the energy market in recent years because it uses oil-fired burners to produce electricity. With the cost of oil significantly higher than natural gas, the plant functions mostly as a third-string quarterback, used only if two transmission lines that provide electricity to the southeastern part of the state should fail at the same time. Significant upgrades were made to those lines in 2009 by NStar, further reducing the need for ISO New England to resort to the plant for electricity.

In July, Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG Energy announced that they had reached an agreement to buy GenOn. Mr. Little confirmed that the merger is expected to be completed by the end of this year. He said that the two companies will continue to operate as two separate entities until sometime early next year.

Mr. Little said that it would also be helpful to bring together representatives from the various state and federal government agencies, including Homeland Security, to discuss any potential change in use of the plant or its dock area. "They all want to be there together because they want to be part of the discussions from the start," he said.

John G. Kennan Jr. advised his fellow SEIC members that before approaching the Army Corps of Engineers and GenOn, their first step should be to convince the board of selectmen to give its approval, something that Mr. Avila said proved problematic for him as far back as 1980. Mr. Avila told the group that he tried several times throughout the 1980s to bring his business to Sandwich, but he was continuously stymied by selectmen.

"They said 'no, we don't want any business in town,'” he said, explaining that he felt like a boxer who was constantly getting knocked down. "Why get up?" he said.

Association members responded with calls to bring representatives from every interested party to an SEIC meeting to make the proposal and give everyone their say as to the feasibility of moving forward. Ms. Dever said an invitation should be made to the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce since the popular tourist town at the tip of the Cape would benefit greatly from a ferry service coming from Sandwich.

SEIC Treasurer Charles H. Ritch said that the addition of a ferry service, which would benefit both Sandwich and Provincetown, makes for an even stronger argument for bringing Mr. Avila's business to the marina "than just for the pure whale watching part of it." Mr. Ritch said that the group's reach should include Speaker of the House and State Senator Terese Murray because "she would love to create jobs." He also suggested that any meeting include Acting Harbormaster David R. Whearty because he enforces the current laws and policies in place at the marina.

"It sounds like we have the energy company, their representative here, that's willing to talk, we have entrepreneurs who are looking for opportunities here," Mr. Ritch said. "I think it's a natural for us."

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