Federal Funding Sought For MV Coho

PORT ANGELES — Don’t be fooled by hearing the blast of the MV Coho’s horn or seeing the 1,000-passenger vessel untethered from the Port Angeles ferry terminal.

It isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

After floating empty at the dock since March 29 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Black Ball Ferry Line ship, which had plied the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles and Victoria for more than 60 years, is sail-ready but otherwise quietly moored at least until April 2021 — and possibly until next summer, company co-owners Ryan Burles and Ryan Malane predicted Wednesday.

They said British Columbia tourism officials are hoping a vaccine for the highly contagious virus will be available by April, allowing the Canadian government to lift a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed on Canadians returning home and a ban on non-essential international travel that means the border is closed to Americans.

“They have said unless there’s a vaccine, herd immunity or a drug that takes the death rate down, they won’t be changing that 14-day quarantine,” Burles told participants in the Clallam County Economic Development Council’s weekly virtual presentation, Coffee with Colleen, hosted by EDC Executive Director Colleen McAleer.

“They are basically saying that, until it’s safe, then we’ll start talking. Time will tell.”

Malane said most of Black Ball’s 120 employees have been laid off or are working reduced hours, including Burles, Malane and co-owner Rian Anderson, who also attended the meeting, leaving a “handful” of workers to tend to the vessel, powering it away from its dock and testing the horn once a month.

The Coho’s lobbyist, Tim Thompson, who had served as an aide to former 6th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, gave a rundown on efforts for potential federal funding options to help keep Black Ball afloat.

They may include access to a potential provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has been passed by the House and is making its way to the Senate.

Thompson, who is working with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell on behalf of Black Ball, consulted Tuesday night with Cantwell’s and Kilmer’s staffs on NDAA funding that could include operating dollars Thompson said are “essential to the long-term viability of Black Ball.”

The congressional delegation will be mobilized to add language beneficial to Black Ball in the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Act, an amendment to the NDAA. It’s legislation that, for the first time, “actually fits the Black Ball story,” Thompson said.

“This is the moment we will begin to reach out to our local stakeholders and urge direct communication and some conference calls we will be setting up with our delegation.”

Funding options also may include Community Development Block Grants, an avenue that Thompson said Kilmer is spearheading and which could be available when Congress approves nationwide COVID-19 relief funding, as expected, later this fall.

“I’m 100 percent committed to ensuring that — even in the face of this pandemic — we are able to protect this vital asset,” Kilmer said Tuesday in an email.

“Whether it’s working with the Treasury Department to provide financing or passing legislation to ensure support to transportation services like this, I will do everything I can to help.”

The Port of Port Angeles, for which McAleer serves as a commissioner and which leases terminal space to Black Ball, has deferred the company’s $7,000-a-month rent under a program the tax district makes available to tenants affected by COVID-19.

The port also could waive that rent.

“We see Black Ball as one of our most treasured tenants,” Port Deputy Executive Director John Nutter said.

“When we look at the impact that all of our various tenants we have, they have by far the largest impact,” Nutter said.

Port Executive Director Karen Goschen said the port will be partnering with Black Ball to seek funding for terminal improvements.

Malane recalled earlier this year when the ferry operated on an “essential service” capacity to Victoria, which did not pan out economically.

“We really need a good season of next year when we are profitable, and it’s all in theory, of course, and if traffic returns, to get us to the following year, so this is a very long-range problem that we are looking at,” he said.

“It’s more looking at the long-term health of the company and viability, and returning to previous service levels.”

Malane said Black Ball, as the last private U.S. ferry company, and as a company that operates in international waters, was not eligible for funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“That’s what we’re working on with Tim [Thompson] and others is to try and find those answers,” he said.

West said ferry service is essential to the long-term health of the city and for projects planned for downtown.

They include the planned Anian Shores multi-use development with apartments, stores and a parking garage on surplus city property, the sale of which is pending to developer Eric Dupar; the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s hotel on Front Street, construction of which has been delayed; and the Field Arts & Events Hall, which was scheduled to have a topping-off ceremony Wednesday night for placement of the building’s final beam.

“We really need some big numbers here, particularly some assistance from the state and federal government,” West said.

“The ripple effect of Black Ball not operating right now is huge.

“Really it impacts a number of our smaller businesses that are really dependent, all the way down to some of the food provided on the ferry that crossed every day.

“Just a huge ripple effect of that not operating right now is really painful for so many businesses in our community.”

Burles pledged that ferry service would begin whenever the border opens, even if it’s in January or February, traditionally money-losing months.

“We know it could be the numbers are poor, and if we don’t have a nest egg, we’ll be in trouble, and we don’t want to lose the company,” he said.

“Tourism people here are saying April, but nothing says that April is the magic date.

“Realistically, we might start in the early year, but if we get pushed back into July and it’s a slow July, you know, here we go, we’ve lost a lot of the months that make us money again, and then we’re in big trouble.”

By:  Paul Gottlieb
Source: Peninsula Daily News