A ferry service that's a lifeline for residents traveling to and from a Lake Superior island may sell its assets to new owners this year.
Michael Childers, president of the La Pointe Harbor Commission, said negotiations are underway to purchase the Madeline Island Ferry Line's assets from two families who own the private ferry service.
"Recently, those families have decided it's time for them to sell," Childers said. "When the town learned of that, the town board moved very quickly to establish our harbor commission to start to investigate the possibility of purchasing the assets of the ferry line."
The Madeline Island Ferry Line has five boats that make nearly 6,000 crossings each year to bring people to Madeline Island from the mainland in Bayfield. The island is a popular tourist destination that draws thousands of visitors during the summer, boosting La Pointe’s year-round population of 430 residents. Childers couldn’t provide exact figures, but he said more than 100,000 people use the ferry line each year.
The commission is looking to buy the ferry line’s boats, equipment and real estate. Childers said they would then subcontract with the ferry line for ongoing maintenance and operations for a duration that has yet to be determined.
Wisconsin Public Radio reached out to the Nelson and Russell families who own the ferry line. Robin Trinko Russell referred all questions to the harbor commission and Arnie Nelson declined to comment.
The commission has submitted an application for $11 million through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s RAISE Grant Program to purchase the ferry line’s assets. Nearly two dozen businesses, nonprofit groups, local governments, agencies and elected leaders have written letters of support for the grant. La Pointe officials have received bipartisan support from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, state Sen. Romaine Quinn, R-Cameron, and state Rep. Chanz Green, R-Grandview.
"Securing future ferry service by creating a public utility accountable to the people will open the door to a reliable ferry schedule and passenger and freight pricing options not currently available to the community," wrote Evers.
Tiffany said any loss of ferry service would jeopardize businesses and residents.
"In addition to tourists and residents, the ferry hauls critical services such as construction and utility repair trucks, EMS and propane tankers," Tiffany wrote. "There currently is no other option to transport these products."
The ferry is a vital link for visitors, workers and residents that contributed to the island’s overall estimated economy of $16.9 million in 2022, according to Michael Collins, president of the Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce. He said tax receipts from retail business generated more than $9.7 million last year, and private vacation rentals generated $2.98 million.
While the island makes up 2.7 percent of Ashland County’s population, it accounts for around 20 percent of the county’s property tax revenues at roughly $1.8 million. The town of La Pointe also provides 46 percent of the Bayfield School District’s property tax revenue, according to District Administrator Beth Paap.
"The island has a capacity to be that economic mechanism that funds a lot that goes out on the mainland, curiously enough," Collins said. "And so, access to and from the island is fundamental to that economy."
Collins and his family have been living on Madeline Island for five generations. While the ferry ride typically lasts about 20 to 25 minutes, Collins said he feels transported to a different world.
"It's a time, necessarily, to slow down," he said. "It gives time to do things that we don't normally do in the course of the day, and that is to think, to talk with each other, to carry on what, I think, is sort of a marvelous part of island life."
He said the ferry line is crucial for island residents, who rely on it to carry goods and services from the mainland. As winters grow warmer, Childers said the ferry is becoming an ever more critical piece for accessing the island when ice fails to form.
"The number of years when the ferry is running year-round, including this one, continues to expand," he said.
The ice road that connects island residents to Bayfield on the mainland has been open about 45 fewer days in the last 150 years.
The commission is currently consulting with legal counsel on contracts and maritime issues, and it’s working with appraisers to determine the value of the ferry line’s boats and real estate. Childers said they’ve also hired a firm to examine the ferry line’s financial operations.
In the meantime, he said officials are still negotiating a purchase price with owners. Childers said additional financing will likely be needed to complete the transaction even if they receive the federal grant. Town officials should learn whether the commission’s grant application has been approved by the end of June. Without it, Childers said they may examine general obligation bonds or revenue bonds to acquire the ferry line’s assets. He said they hope to finalize details in the next three months before placing the purchase before town residents for a vote.
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