Stalled Negotiations in New Bedford Endanger SSA's Schamonchi Service

By JULIA WELLS

Stalled lease negotiations between New Bedford city officials and the owner of the Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford may force a delay in the start date for spring service on the passenger ferry Schamonchi - or worse, a shutdown in the service altogether - Steamship Authority managers said yesterday.

Service on the Schamonchi is set to begin May 21. But SSA chef executive officer Fred C. Raskin confirmed yesterday that the opening looks doubtful because of the problems with the lease negotiations.

"It's a problem and I am concerned, I am very concerned, but I'm not sure it's a problem the Steamship Authority can address," Mr. Raskin said yesterday.

"You're talking New Bedford politics - you tell me," he added.

"This is purely political because of the stand we've taken against [former New Bedford city solicitor] George Leontire and company. They've been trying to put us out of business for four years to drive the ferry uptown. But we feel there is room for both - we'd gladly compete with a high-speed ferry in town," declared wharf owner Carl Pimentel yesterday.

"I want to be very clear - it's not us that's at a stalemate, we're not the problem here," said New Bedford city solicitor Matt Thomas.

The negotiations center on a 350-car parking lot that Mr. Pimentel leases from the city, adjacent to the Billy Woods Wharf where the Schamonchi docks, outside the hurricane barrier. Mr. Pimentel had a five-year lease with an option to renew for five more years. The first half of the lease ran out last October, and the city said it would not renew. Later city officials offered to renew the lease for one year, but Mr. Pimentel wants a five-year commitment.

Mr. Pimentel also owns another 300-car lot adjacent to the city lot.

The SSA bought the Schamonchi two and a half years ago for $1.3 million from the Thompson family, which ran the passenger ferry for 20 years. The ferry, which now runs between New Bedford and the boat line wharf in Oak Bluffs, is set to begin its third season under boat line ownership.

The news about problems with the Schamonchi comes as the SSA governors prepare to take action on a license request for high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard. A vote is expected at the monthly boat line meeting next Thursday on the license request from New England Fast Ferry. The board is expected to give management a green light to negotiate a license. If the license deal is completed and approved by the board, high-speed ferry service will begin from the State Pier in New Bedford next summer.

New Bedford city officials have made no secret of the fact that they want the SSA to run all ferry operations out of the State Pier.

"The only way we have any leverage is if the Steamship Authority sticks with us and avoids just going along with whatever New Bedford wants," Mr. Pimentel said yesterday.

Mr. Pimentel said he pays the city $34,000 a year for the lease plus about $10,000 in city taxes. He charges the boat line about $3,000 a year for the use of the Billy Woods Wharf.

The New Bedford city council was expected to take up the lease dispute at a meeting last night.

"This thing is coming to a head - in fact tonight at the city council meeting, the council is asking for an explanation of what's gone on," Mr. Pimentel said.

Mr. Thomas said the city has tried to accommodate the Schamonchi by offering the one-year deal.

"In order keep the Schamonchi running, we were willing to grant a lease for one season. We want to try to facilitate the situation. But Mr. Pimentel wants nothing less than another three to five years of running it, and we're not willing to do that," the city solicitor said.

Mr. Pimentel said SSA managers waited until late in the game to get involved.

"They didn't contact me until April 15 - Fred called me and he said, ‘There's no reason we can't move forward.' I asked him, ‘Is George Leontire going to run the Steamship Authority with 10 per cent of the vote, or are you going to go public with this thing?' " he said. New Bedford now has a voting member on the SSA board of governors, but the votes are weighted with the majority weight carried by the two Islands.

Mr. Pimentel said he will not agree to a one-year lease.

"No, we're not going to do that, we've been the carrier outside of the dike for 15 years and we should be given the chance to run the parking operations as long as the Schamonchi runs where it is - outside of the dike. Until I get something I'm not going to move," he said.

"I heard from [boat line] board members that they would shut the ferry down if they didn't hear from us. But look, I am not going to go hat in hand year after year to the [Mayor Frederick] Kalisz and Leontire administration. This is it - make up your mind now."

Mr. Raskin portrayed the boat line as something of an innocent bystander in the whole flap, but at the same time he admitted that the boat line is a player.

"We're not a player in this issue - well, I guess we really are a player and we're concerned about it, but this is what happens when you have new contracts to negotiate. Hopefully we'll get some resolution," he said, adding:

"George wants to bring the Schamonchi to State Pier. I've tried to press George to give more to Carl, but they've said no."

Concluded Mr. Raskin:

"I think we'll have a season for the Schamonchi, but it's going to be up to Carl."