Snow Hill Council Considers Riverboat’s Future

Snow Hill Council Considers Riverboat’s Future
The Black-Eyed Susan riverboat is pictured in Snow Hill at its berth. File photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Municipal officials say the time has come to make a decision regarding the future of Snow Hill’s riverboat.

On Tuesday, the town invited the public to comment on the Black-Eyed Susan riverboat. Mayor Mike Pruitt said the council would soon need to decide whether the town should keep the boat, which needs significant repairs before it can be used, or dispose of it.

“We’ve got to do something with this boat,” Pruitt said.

The Black-Eyed Susan, purchased by the town in 2020, had a successful season running up and down the Pocomoke River in 2021. A mandatory inspection in Norfolk early this year, however, revealed that the boat needed extensive repairs in order to resume regular cruises. The inspection revealed issues with the hull, hydraulics system and paddlewheel frame. Initial repair estimates exceeded $600,000. As a result, the boat spent this past summer docked in Snow Hill.

Pruitt has spent the past several months gathering information from boat captains and maritime officials to help the town make a decision regarding the future of the Black-Eyed Susan. Though he initially wanted the council to vote on the issue this week, with the absence of Councilperson Regina Blake, Pruitt said Tuesday’s meeting would just be for discussion purposes.

“I think it’s only fair to Councilperson Blake that she be here,” he said.

Pruitt told the council that he’d consulted with a variety of boaters, including the owner of a trawler and the owner of Suicide Bridge Restaurant, which operates two paddleboats. Pruitt said Suicide Bridge had actually considered purchasing the Black-Eyed Susan at one point a few years ago. Pruitt said the restaurant’s owner estimated annual maintenance costs for a riverboat at $100,000 a year.

“He couldn’t believe a small town like Snow Hill got into the boat business,” Pruitt said.

He told the council he’d also had boat captains weigh in on the riverboat. They all echoed the rough annual maintenance estimate of $100,000. One noted that his company took boats out of service at 30 years, an age the Black-Eyed Susan has already surpassed.

Pruitt added that two bankers he’d spoken to had both suggested the town cut its losses at this point.

While there were several people in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, only three shared views on the riverboat. John Paffrath and Roger Malik told the council they were part of a nonprofit interested in preserving railroads on the Eastern Shore. They said they’d come across the riverboat in their railroad work and thought it was a great tourism draw. Paffrath said something like a dinner train between Snow Hill and Berlin could pair well with a murder mystery cruise on the Black-Eyed Susan.

Another speaker, Bob Blevins, talked about his prior fundraising efforts and said he wanted citizens who supported the town’s ownership of the boat to brainstorm about ways to raise both interest and money.  He pointed out that even if the boat was going to be sold, it was worth more if it was repaired first.

“We’re certainly wiling to listen,” Pruitt said. “We’ve just got to do something.”

Malik added that before getting rid of the boat the town needed to consider debt service and grants already associated with the riverboat.

Pruitt said he was in contact with county officials about the loan that had enabled the town to purchase the boat. He said there was a grant involved as well.

“We are aware there are some sticky issues,” he said.

Councilperson Janet Simpson said there was a lot of information to digest but that she agreed a decision needed to be made soon.

“We need to look at all options,” she said, adding that she was glad some citizens had weighed in. “I am very positive about the river being a focal point of our economic vitality and I think we need to concentrate on that.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.