Tar Heel Tattler - September 2006

Ports' cruising is bruising, but it still lands business
By Edward Martin

A cruise aboard a state-owned ferry for politicians, economic developers and prospects ended as a public-relations shipwreck. The State Ports Authority wound up apologizing, and Gov. Mike Easley berated Department of Transportation officials who supplied the ferry.

Critics seem to forget that the authority, though a state agency, is expected to act like a business. Recruiters who helped sponsor the cruise July 1 note that representatives of Blue Hawaiian Fiberglass Pools were among the 200 guests. Later that month, the Largo, Fla.-based company announced it will open a plant near Rocky Mount. One reason was the $45,000 grant that the state offered, CEO Roger Erdelac says, but another was the hospitality recruiters showed them.

The authority had invited the VIPs to the Pepsi Parade of Tall Ships in Beaufort. To spruce up the Floyd J. Lupton, DOT took the ferry out of service on the Neuse River five days to paint it. Motorists complained that the smaller ferry substituted for it caused delays.

Most of the $30,000 cost of the cruise came from money the Ports Authority generates from docking and storage fees and other operations — it earned $11.7 million on $46.9 million revenue in its latest fiscal year — and from recruiters’ contributions. None of the $7.5 million of state tax money it received was used for the cruise. Ports Authority officials say it’s important to cultivate relationships with local and state officials and executives of businesses that ship by sea. But Chairman Carl Stewart apologized anyway, saying the cruise “probably wasn’t a good idea.” Some others disagreed.

“Aside from whether the ferry should have been taken out of service, was the activity going on legitimate? My answer is yes,” says Al Delia, president of North Carolina’s Eastern Region, a Kinston-based development group. John Gessaman, CEO of Carolinas Gateway Partnership, which recruits industry for Nash and Edgecombe counties, concurs. “Something like the cruise is a good opportunity to demonstrate the quality of life offered in Eastern North Carolina.” That helped tip Blue Hawaiian, says Dave Inscoe, executive director of the Carteret County Economic Development Council.

Because of such cases, ports officials aren’t about to abandon ship when it comes to marketing. But they’re drafting rules they hope will keep them out of hot water.