Muskegon Welcomes Ferry Service

June 5, 2002
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MUSKEGON – The successful revival of the Great Lakes cruising industry convinced Lake Michigan Carferry Inc. to add a second route that would link Muskegon and Milwaukee, Wisc.

The company, which successfully launched a Ludington-to-Manitowoc cross-lake ferry service nine years ago, hopes to begin the new “southern route” by 2003. Lake Michigan Carferry will spend an estimated $10 million to $11 million to refurbish a 410-foot, 49-year-old steamer, the SS Spartan, capable of carrying 620 passengers and 200 vehicles.

The four- to five-hour lake crossing would offer travelers entertainment and dining in a “little more upscale” atmosphere than the existing Ludington route, said Don Clingan, vice president of marketing for Lake Michigan Carferry. The company would schedule one round-trip daily during the spring and fall and two during the busy summer months, Clingan said.

The new Muskegon-to-Milwaukee service would add a new wrinkle to the Great Lakes cruising industry that began re-emerging in the late 1990s, decades after it disappeared during the post-World War II.

“We think it represents an opportunity to grow the market. There is incredible interest in cruising and we don’t see that as a short-term trend,” Clingan said. “We’re looking for a niche in competing with other cruise lines.”

That niche would feed not only into the revival of Great Lakes cruising, but the tendency by tourists for years to take shorter trips and travel more frequently, such as the weekend getaways, to visit more destinations during an extended vacation, rather than spend an entire week in one location.

Lake Michigan Carferry envisions drawing people who want to take a lake cruise, but don’t wish to be tied to or can’t afford a multi-day or week-long excursion. They could take a day-long trip across the lake and back, or cruise one way and drive home, Clingan said.

“The time commitment is reasonable and it fits with peoples’ lifestyles,” he said.

While Great Lakes cruising is a small niche within the tourism industry, its popularity is growing quickly.

A cross-lake service in Muskegon is a welcome addition to the area for Joanne Hatch, head of the Muskegon County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The new service would add “one more component” to an industry that consists of many niche players, Hatch said.

“A lot of niches add up to a whole lot of people,” Hatch said.

Lake Michigan Carferry needs to accomplish a lot before it can launch the new service, including securing mooring facilities in Muskegon and Milwaukee, but plans to move quickly to “move the ball forward.”

“We’re going to pursue it aggressively and see where it goes. We think we have a service that is going to be a success,” Clingan said.

Lake Michigan Careferry is not worried that the SS Spartan, which the company will rename as the Wisconsin Clipper once it's refurbished, will draw business away from its successful Ludington-to-Manitowoc line that has grown steadily since it launched in 1992. The new route would generate additional interest in cross-lake cruising and benefit both, Clingan said.

“We’ve an awful lot of thought to it. We think we can make them both work,” he said. “There is a growth market for that kind of service that would complement what we do.”

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