Ferry: A Sea Of Change

June 4, 2004
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ABOARD THE LAKE EXPRESS — As the Lake Express sped across Lake Michigan toward Muskegon, a trio of businessmen sat comfortably in the business section, talking about the vessel and the possibilities it holds.

As they offered their critiques, one mentioned how the ferry could prove good for business and help sales representatives who cover multi-state territories to travel more conveniently between Michigan and Wisconsin without enduring the time-consuming drive around Chicago.

His idea is exactly the kind that investors in the Lake Express believe will sustain the high-speed ferry for years to come.

Once the initial excitement and novelty of the service wears off and the three daily round-trip lake crossings become commonplace, the ferry's owner anticipates the Lake Express will catch on as a regular mode of transportation for leisure and business travelers moving between Michigan and Wisconsin and far beyond to other destinations — hence the "Take the Lake" motto on promotional materials.

"The Lake Express, as a service, will create tremendous convenience for business," said David Lubar, president of Lubar & Co., a Milwaukee investment firm that formed Lake Express LLC to undertake development of high-speed ferry service across Lake Michigan.

Cruising at speeds of up to 40 mph, the 192-foot Lake Express crosses the lake in two and a half hours — about half the time it would take to drive around Chicago from Muskegon to Milwaukee.

Lubar believes the high-speed ferry will spur economic activity on either side of Lake Michigan well beyond the obvious use for leisure travel and tourism. Market research indicates that more than 100,000 people will use the ferry annually from May to December, he said.

"We're only scratching the surface as far as its development and looking at how this boat is used, and it will be used in ways we haven't even thought of. We have literally hundreds of ideas we have not had a chance to pursue," Lubar said during the June 1 maiden voyage of the Lake Express. "We think the ramifications of this are significant for economic development on both sides of the lake."

On this side, the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce already is receiving inquiries from area businesses seeking information about how they can use the new transportation link to their benefit, President Cindy Larsen said.

The ferry provides a more convenient venue for local businesses to potentially expand their products or services across the lake, into the Milwaukee market and beyond, Larsen said.

"It opens up the market so we can do commerce in four directions," she said. "It's easy access to a new market."

Ideally, the ferry could generate exposure for Muskegon and West Michigan, leading to new investments here, Larsen believes.

"The long-term sustainability is the transportation link introducing people to West Michigan who have never been here before, and that could lead to all sorts of opportunities — new people bringing new ideas, new entrepreneurial activity, new connections," she said.

As Muskegon seeks an economic rebirth, Mayor Steve Warmington sees the ferry serving as a "piece of the puzzle" in the overall future for the Lakeside neighborhood where the ferry docks, and in downtown, up the Muskegon Lake shoreline.

For now, seeing the high-speed ferry service begin "is like Christmas to us" in Muskegon, Warmington said.

That excitement extends across West Michigan.

In Grand Rapids, the high-speed link across the lake has potential to help the growing convention business coming to the new DeVos Place Convention Center.

The Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau wants to leverage the ferry service to draw both leisure travelers and convention business from organizations based in Wisconsin, northern Illinois and southern Minnesota that have membership across Great Lakes states.

"This is really going to open things up for us. It's a marketing advantage," said Barbara Kravitz, the Grand Rapids/Kent County CVB's director of communications. "It makes it easier to bring convention business here from the Great Lakes region."

Once an ambitious vision of Milwaukee Port Director Ken Szallai, the new high-speed ferry service began last week amid high fanfare and anticipation. The ferry, with a capacity to carry 250 passengers and 46 cars, will make the 78-mile trip across Lake Michigan six times daily, or three round-trips.

"Never before has a vessel carrying cars and passengers carried this much at this speed," Lubar said during a ceremony in Milwaukee following the ferry's arrival back at its homeport. "From this day forward, Lake Michigan is not only a great recreational lake but also a great expressway. It's the 'Lake Expressway' and it's here to stay."

The Lake Express, a twin-hull catamaran designed to provide a relatively smooth ride, restored ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee after a 34-year absence.

A round-trip ticket on the Lake Express costs $42.50 per person, each way, in the main cabin and $60 for the business class. Children ages 5 to 15 are $20 each way with the purchase of round-trip tickets and children 4 and under are free. Vehicle fares are $50 each way, $50 for a trailer and $30 for a motorcycle.

If success is realized in the Muskegon-Milwaukee market, Lake Express LLC will weigh additional ferry routes, Lubar said.

"We definitely could," he said. "It'll be a lot easier with the next boat."    

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