A drop in ferries means a drop in island sales

When the ferries lag, business on the islands does too.

“Schedules are delayed, and that goes on to the customers and their projects can’t get done,” said Justin Paulsen, a contractor on Orcas Island.

Paulsen had to postpone supply deliveries until ferry reservations were re-opened on July 27, making one project about two weeks late.

“But customers understand,” said Paulsen. “We’re all in the same boat.”

That boat is the Washington State Ferries, which islanders rely on for transportation, goods, and the tourists who heavily support the island economy.

During the height of the islands’ busiest season, on July 16, two broken ferries prompted an alternate schedule for roughly two weeks. Reservations could not be made during that time and sailings were delayed daily. On July 29, a vessel from a different route was added to the San Juans’ schedule to return it to full service.

The economic impact of those two weeks of delays will be outlined in a letter to state legislators, according to Victoria Compton, executive director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council.

Compton and members of the islands’ chambers of commerce, the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau, the Town of Friday Harbor and the San Juan County Council are drafting the letter to illustrate the islands’ dependence on ferries.

“We’re not suggesting solutions, we’re just building awareness so legislators in other parts of Washington, not solely served by ferries, understand the ferries are our lifeline,” said Compton.

The letter, she said, will be sent in about a month, once sales tax lost during the two weeks of delays can be determined. Based on the collection of testimonials from business owners, she expects to see a drastic decline.

For Paulsen of Terra Firma NW, suppliers, who couldn’t make ferry reservations to the islands, asked to be compensated for their wait in ferry lines. That would cost an additional $1,000 for deliveries, he said. Instead, he postponed projects and went off island for his own supply run. He estimates the day off island cost him $1,000 in lost wages.

Employees of Lawson Construction on San Juan waited up to five hours in ferry lines to reach a project on Orcas. This resulted in overtime, which owners paid for out of pocket, as the government contract job did not cover the expense, said owner Leah Lawson.

“My guys weren’t getting home until 11:30 p.m. and still had to get up at 7 a.m. to catch a ferry the next day,” she said. “It was pretty tragic.”

Hobbes Buchanan of San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours said he lost 14 ticket sales in two days, resulting in $1,400 of lost revenue.

Justin Honeywell of Southend Market on Lopez said sales during the two weeks of delays were down about 12 percent from last year. Since the business opened in 2012, sales have typically grown about 5 to 10 percent a year, said Honeywell, but the last two weeks trended below the expected growth.

San Juan Island Transit Owner Sasha Von Dassow paid employees overtime throughout the week due to late returns to the island. Von Dassow also turned down two deliveries of off-island goods, which would have produced a roughly $300 profit, he said.

Anthony Rovente, owner of Edenwild Boutique Inn on Lopez, had a dozen cancellations during the two weeks of delays for his nine-room hotel. On July 18, a one-day alternate schedule did not include any international sailings so travelers from British Columbia canceled.

“I literally couldn’t accommodate those guests because the boat just passed by the islands,” he said.

Other visitors, added Rovente, canceled because of the WSF’s use of the term “emergency schedule,” to describe the alternate routes. Travelers feared there was a crisis.

Advice on WSF’s messaging, said Compton, will be included in the letter. Messaging, she said, is just as important as funding additional, newer ferries.

According to WSF’s website, one of the broken vessels is 50 years old, while the other is almost 40. Each of the 22 ferries operates 20-plus hours a day, about 300 days a year, according to Ian Sterling with WSF. In the summer, ridership increases about 50 percent, he added.

While the ferry schedule is now running smoothly, business owners like Rovente fear the damage to the San Juans’ reputation as a travel destination may be done.

“People are starting to think that the San Juans is a hassle, that it’s a real gamble to come here on vacation,” said Rovente. “We’re not just losing one guest for one stay, we’re losing a lifetime of stays.”

For more information on the WSF, visit www.wsdot.com. To add to contribute information to the letter drafted by local civics organizations, contact the EDC at info@sanjuansedc.org or 378-2906.