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Thursday, December 13, 2007 - Page updated at 11:38 AM

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Car-ferry shutdown riles Port Townsend merchants

Special to The Seattle Times

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MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Some Port Townsend merchants say they're already seeing a sharp effect from the state's decision to yank two 80-year-old ferries from service because of safety concerns.

PORT TOWNSEND — Shopkeepers and restaurateurs in this historic Puget Sound seaport vented their wrath Wednesday toward state officials for closing down their vital car ferry to Whidbey Island in the midst of what would typically be a busy holiday season.

"We didn't get hit by a meteor," said Jim Switz, who runs a Japanese restaurant here. "An 80-year-old section of a state highway has been allowed to disintegrate. Who's going to walk down Water Street and meet some of the people you're putting out of business?"

He and his neighbors referred to last month's decision to yank two 80-year-old car ferries out of service — ferries that local merchants and innkeepers rely on to bring weekenders and holiday shoppers from Canada and the northwest corner of the state.

Some merchants reported business was off as much as 50 percent from last December.

"I can weather this storm," said Mickey Davis, who runs a sandwich shop near the ferry terminal. "But the value of my store has dropped by 35 percent."

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond and other state officials acknowledged that their decision has undercut business in this tourist-dependent town perched at the entrance to Puget Sound.

"The day I had to withdraw those boats could not have been worse timing," Hammond told about 100 merchants and others who gathered at a waterfront meeting room.

But she reiterated her rationale: The aging Steel Electric-class ferries, built in 1927, have corroded to the point that they can no longer be operated safely.

This week, the news got worse when transportation officials reported that closer inspections revealed pitting and other damage so severe that the boats are not worth repairing. And even if they were, Hammond said, it is "not likely" that the Coast Guard would allow them to be used.

"I'm not willing to put passenger lives at risk," Hammond said.

Gov. Christine Gregoire will unveil her ferry plans during a briefing at 10 a.m. today at Seattle's Todd Shipyards. Washington State Ferries is considering tapping money allocated for new terminals to replace the Steel Electric boats.

But in the short run, state officials hope to launch high-speed passenger-only service from Seattle to Port Townsend. Closing the car ferry has not affected visitors from the Seattle area, where travelers use the Edmonds or Bainbridge ferries and the Hood Canal Bridge, but merchants here fear the ferries being docked has created a misconception that Port Townsend is isolated, discouraging Seattle visitors.

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"I have customers asking me if we're underwater or something," said Teresa Verraes-Landis, who runs a gallery just off Water Street.

In fact, business has picked up this week in the aftermath of a week of terrible weather and floods, she said. Like other merchants, Verraes-Landes said she has lost her customers from Vancouver, B.C., and the Bellingham area. But shoppers are still coming from Seattle.

Local merchants say impacts from the ferry shutdown have been uneven, affecting primarily restaurants and gift shops in the Water Street area.

For locals, the shutdown is a reminder of the region's reliance on tourism and holiday traffic. With a population of fewer that 10,000, Port Townsend is home to nearly 40 restaurants and even more shops, including five art galleries, three booksellers, three sporting-goods stores and dozens of small shops that specialize in goods ranging from puzzles and games to classic automobile parts and marine hardware.

While merchants grumble about the ferry shutdown, other residents complain that local businesses cater almost exclusively to tourists.

"We have early retirees and second-home owners," says Jon Muellner, a Web designer who runs PT Guide, a local online business directory. "And we have the tourists and the weekenders. But we also have working families who aren't shopping for a $1,000 vase; they need new bedsheets and socks for the kids, and those are hard to find here."

But Muellner is in full agreement with local merchants that the state needs to act quickly and decisively. If the 80-year-old Steel Electrics are history, then the town needs to know what will replace them and when.

"This is always a challenging place to do business," he said. "We really didn't need another challenge."

Ross Anderson is a former reporter for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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