SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-2 in an emergency meeting Tuesday to move forward with the purchase of a riverboat.
The commissioners agreed to loan Snow Hill and Pocomoke roughly $350,000 to buy the Black Eyed Susan, a 149-passenger riverboat that has been used in Havre de Grace. The boat is meant to bring tourism to the southern end of Worcester County.
“We believe this opportunity checks all the boxes for Snow Hill and Pocomoke,” said Tom Perlozzo, the county’s director of tourism, economic development and recreation and parks. “It’s what I believe to be a great opportunity to take advantage of the Pocomoke River. It’s an asset, it’s an economic draw.”
Perlozzo said the riverboat was a unique opportunity to promote the southern end of the county as a tourism destination. He said the plan was for Snow Hill and Pocomoke to purchase the boat through funding from the county. That funding would be made up of a $100,000 Community Legacy Grant transfer — as Tyson Foods in Snow Hill does not intend to take advantage of the grant it received — as well as the $250,000 in CARES Act funding the commissioners previously set aside for the southern part of the county. Perlozzo said the venture represented little risk for the county because the boat was one of just nine such boats available in the United States. He added that Lachelle Scarlato, deputy director of economic development for Worcester County, had part ownership of the LLC that currently owned the boat.
Gary Weber, Snow Hill’s town manager, asked the commissioners to consider how much the riverboat could benefit the southern portion of the county.
“With the addition of the Black Eyed Susan our river will become the destination that it deserves to be,” he said. “It’ll be a shining jewel in the crown of our county seat.”
He said it would bring dozens of jobs for those in the restaurant business as well as actors and musicians. It could also provide educational opportunities for local students.
Commissioner Chip Bertino was quick to ask for details regarding the proposal. He questioned the cost of moving the boat to Snow Hill as well as preparations associated with docking it. Weber said it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 to bring it to Snow Hill but didn’t have details regarding the route it would take.
When Bertino asked how many trips the boat would take to make money, Weber said the ticket cost would depend on what type of trip was offered. He said the operator, who has not yet been identified, will decide what sorts of trips to offer on the boat.
Bertino also questioned Pocomoke’s involvement, as the city had not officially signed on to the project yet.
Mayor Susan Marshall Harrison said the city was very interested. Pocomoke City Manager Jeremy Mason agreed.
“Everybody is on board if it makes sense,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers.”
Bertino pointed out that neither did the commissioners yet they were being asked to make a decision now. When he asked to see the boat’s past financials, Weber said they’d been requested from Havre de Grace but had not been received. He added, however, that what happened in Havre de Grace could not be compared to Snow Hill. Weber, citing his success with the Blue Dog Café, said he was confident that it would prove profitable.
“I have no doubt in my mind this boat will pay for itself,” he said. “It wouldn’t even have to leave the dock.”
Bertino said it was hard to support the project when there was no business plan.
“With all due respect you’re asking us for money without corresponding comprehensive information,” he said.
Weber said he wished there was more time to provide that information but that there were other prospective buyers interested in the boat.
“It seems like these things are very desirable,” he said.
Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said he could answer some of Bertino’s questions. As far as tickets, he said prices ranged from $40 to $95 a person. When Bertino said that sort of information should have been in the commissioners’’ packets, Higgins said he’d gotten it last minute.
“That’s my point …,” Bertino said. “Doing it on the fly I think leads to mistakes. We have not had the opportunity to vet this.”
He added that Leonardtown officials had met last week to consider purchasing the boat. They’d been given a detailed presentation on the proposal.
“A lot of the questions I asked, they had answers for in that presentation,” Bertino said. “When all was said and done, after a tremendous presentation — I wish our folks had done that today — the city council came to the conclusion it didn’t work for them because there were still, as detailed as the presentation was, they still had questions they couldn’t answer.”
He added that he questioned whether the purchase should be considered when a county employee was an owner of the boat.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom, making a motion to move provide Snow Hill and Pocomoke a no interest loan to make the purchase, said time was of the essence and that the county should not let the opportunity pass by.
“This is something that could revitalize the downtown of not one but two towns in the southern end of the county…,” he said. “If we don’t make a decision today we are going to lose this opportunity and if we lose it we may never get it again. I implore everyone up here to understand that. Understand how important this is for Pocomoke. How important this is for Snow Hill. How long these towns have been depressed economically. How they’ve wanted something, needed something, craved something for economic development, employment, for jobs, to bring people to town so people will want to put businesses in these empty storefronts that have been sitting empty for years and years.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting expressed objections to the proposal.
“It may pass the legal test to take the $250,000 in advertising from the CARES Act but it doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said. “Lord knows who else you’re affecting by doing this. There’s other people that could probably use this money.”
He echoed Bertino’s concern about Scarlato’s involvement.
“It’s not right that a county employee will benefit from this,” he said.
Bunting also referenced the repairs the boat needed and the fact that its kitchen would have to be approved by the health department. He said while he’d like to find a way to help the southern end of the county he didn’t think this was it.
“I don’t have the optimism you do,” he told Weber. “I think it’ll be a failure.”
Commissioner Bud Church acknowledged that he had a few concerns about the riverboat but wanted to move forward with it. He pointed out it had the support of various towns as well as the Harrison Group in Ocean City.
“I see it as a win-win not only for Snow Hill and Pocomoke but all of Worcester County,” he said.
Commissioner Ted Elder said he was torn because while he wanted to promote Snow Hill and Pocomoke he didn’t like being rushed into a major purchase. When he asked Weber whether the boat had been making many trips and whether it was usually full of passengers, Weber said he didn’t know. He said he couldn’t speak for Havre de Grace but could show Elder the financials of the Blue Dog Café, which had proven successful for 10 years.
“We are a tourist attraction,” he said. “We want to build that. This will help us build that. We’re never going to have this opportunity again. Snow Hill, for the first time in probably 15 years, the mayor, the council, every department head, love respect and nurture each other every day. There is no division whatsoever in our town. We’ve got an election coming up, we’re going to have a mayor, two council people, then we might have a whole different slate of people. Here we are. It’s all aligned.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he felt the county needed to take the chance on the boat.
“I think we can spend $250,000 on internet, magazines, TV and radio and certainly not get the bang for the buck we will if this paddlewheel boat goes up and down the Pocomoke River,” he said. “I have my concerns. Don’t get me wrong. But as I just said to Mr. Elder nothing ventured nothing gained. I think this is a venture that’s going to be a big gain for the county.”
The commissioners voted 5-2 to provide the loan for the boat with Bertino and Bunting opposed.