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Originally published December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 2, 2007 at 5:36 AM

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Ferry cuts hurt Port Townsend

Across this tourist town on the Olympic Peninsula, business people say the shutdown of the Steel Electric ferries late last month has dramatically cut into their sales.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PORT TOWNSEND — At Rick Unrue's Belmont Hotel and Restaurant there were 20 cancellations for Thanksgiving dinner.

The day after Thanksgiving, C.J. Colbert had half as many customers as she did a year ago at her Mud Cats and Weathered Friends gift shop next to the ferry terminal.

At Personalize It, owner Nancy Schrier said customers came Thanksgiving weekend from as far away as Renton just to support her stationery store during the Great Ferry Shutdown.

Across this tourist town on the Olympic Peninsula, business people say the shutdown of the Steel Electric ferries late last month has dramatically cut into their sales just as they were beginning the Christmas shopping season.

On Nov. 20, Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond ordered that the four 80-year-old Steel Electric ferries — the Klickitat, the Illahee, the Nisqually and the Quinault — be taken out of service to inspect their hulls.

That came after evidence that the Quinault, now in dry dock on Harbor Island, was showing signs of damage from 80 years on saltwater.

The car ferries were replaced by a passenger ferry, the Snohomish, from Keystone to Port Townsend.

The Steel Electric boats, built in 1927, are the only ferries capable of operating in Keystone's narrow and shallow Whidbey Island harbor.

While the foot ferry does provide a link from Whidbey Island to Port Townsend, it's not easy for those forced to leave their cars behind.

Joe Quinn, who lives near the Keystone terminal on Whidbey, rode the ferry last week, pulling a television set on a dolly, a Christmas present for his mother.

He said he moved to the area from San Diego five years ago because he likes to backpack in the Olympic Mountains, but without a car ferry it will make his trips much more difficult.

"It's huge," he said of the shutdown. "I've known for a long time that the ferry was on its last legs." While he's upset about the loss of the car ferry, he did credit the DOT for coming up with a way to keep one boat on the route.

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In Port Townsend, several business owners asked why the state had to pull all four ferries when some are in worse condition than others.

Mari Mullen, director of Main Street Program, which works to maintain the economic vitality of the historic downtown business district, said some businesses are significantly down with the ferry problems.

"In our town that's a chunk of business, money we can't say goodbye to," she said. "Holidays can be the difference of being in the black or not. They count on it being busy this time of year."

She said businesses are particularly worried about losing Canadian shoppers, who have been flooding to the city to spend their stronger dollar.

Tim Caldwell, general manager of the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, said he applauds Hammond for her decision to take the damaged ferries out of service. Still, he said the business community is feeling the loss of the car ferry, particularly since there was a 40 percent increase in vehicles last year on the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

"Traffic is way down," he said. "We don't yet know how this will affect us."

He said the chamber is pushing for a high-speed ferry between Port Townsend and Seattle, but acknowledges it may be a hard sell.

Schrier, with Personalize It, said she had many customers over the Thanksgiving weekend who told her, "We came just to shop locally because of the ferry system."

Still, she said, her Friday sales were off by $500.

Colbert, with her Mud Cats shop, said she hopes to be able to hang on to her store during the ferry shutdown. "It may be a rough winter," she said. "Somehow I'm going to make it. This was an ax through our hearts."

She's been on the phone calling everyone she can think of, the governor, the DOT, legislators. "I'm really aggravated with the DOT and the Legislature," she said. "They've just dropped the ball on our run. I want a voice. I need it for our survival."

Unrue, with the Belmont Hotel and Restaurant, said he wished the state had fixed the ferries as they showed signs of wear, rather than pulling them all out of service.

"People think there's a lot of politics behind the whole thing," he said. "It's like someone ignored part of a highway and it washed away."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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