- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

MUSKEGON, Mich. — A new high-speed, high-tech ferry began plying Lake Michigan this month, covering the 76 nautical miles between Milwaukee and Muskegon in about 21/2 hours and bringing with it hopes of a regional travel boom.

Officials from the new Lake Express car-passenger ferry say thousands of tickets were sold before the June 1 opening.

The vessel is expected to boost tourism and economic development in Muskegon and the state’s southwestern region by making it easier for residents of Wisconsin and neighboring states to explore “Michigan’s west coast.”

Local officials also hope visitors will check out such attractions as Pere Marquette Beach in Muskegon and Michigan’s Adventure amusement park, which is just north of town.

The Lake Express has a capacity of 250 passengers and 46 vehicles. The 192-foot-long ferry is owned by Lubar & Co., a family-run Milwaukee investment firm.

The sleek, four-engine aluminum catamaran — which will routinely cruise at 34 knots, or about 40 mph — is the fastest commercial boat on Lake Michigan, says Lubar spokesman Jeff Fleming.

It’s the first high-speed ferry to operate on the Great Lakes, but not by much. An Australian-built Lake Ontario ferry, the Spirit of Ontario, nicknamed “the Breeze,” began service between Toronto and Rochester, N.Y., last week

To get Wisconsin residents fired up to come to Muskegon, Travel Michigan has teamed up with Lubar and the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau for a $150,000 promotional campaign in Milwaukee and Green Bay.

The ferry is being advertised as an affordable alternative to flying to Muskegon that’s faster and more relaxing than the six-hour, 286-mile drive through Chicago traffic and around the southern end of Lake Michigan.

“Lake Michigan is a beautiful asset to Muskegon and Milwaukee, but as far as travel and tourism, it’s a barrier without the ferry operation,” says Sam Wendling, the bureau’s director.

The boat will make three round trips seven days a week through September, starting with a 6:30 a.m., local time, departure from Milwaukee.

In October, November and December, it will make two round trips daily until shutting down for the season in late December. Service will resume in April or May.

At $59 for a vehicle plus $50 for the driver one way, the price is comparable to one-way direct air travel between the cities.

Amtrak and Greyhound each have slower routes, with varying levels of service.

Other older and slower ferries operate in the lakes, including the long-established SS Badger. Owned by the Lake Michigan Carferry Service Inc., it takes four hours to go from its home port in Ludington, about 50 miles north of Muskegon, to its terminal in Manitowoc, Wis. That’s 90 minutes longer than a one-way ride on the Lake Express.

Travel officials say there’s a market for both ferries, though. The 51-year-old Badger is more than twice as long — 410 feet from bow to stern — and accommodates 620 passengers and 180 vehicles.

Badger spokeswoman Lynda Daugherty says Lake Michigan Carferry wants the passenger experience to be more like a pleasure cruise.

Guests can enjoy numerous activities and spacious outside decks for walking or relaxing, plus a new healthy-foods menu and a new “quiet area” with reclining seats.

“A lot of our passengers tell us, ‘That four hours just isn’t enough time,’” Miss Daugherty says.

Mr. Fleming says each of the Lake Michigan ferries appeals to a different type of customer: “The Lake Express is selling speed and convenience. It’s selling destination. The Badger, on the other hand, is selling a sentimental ride on a historic vessel.”

The Lakeside area business owners are hopeful that large numbers of Lake Express passengers eventually will begin shopping at their stores and eating at their restaurants.

“Then when they see what a beautiful area it is and what a friendly place it is, then there’s no question they’ll want to come and bring their families and stay year after year,” says Laureen Samples, who owns a candy shop near where the ferry will dock.

Visitors to Michigan spent $15 billion in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, the state’s official tourism-promotion agency. Tourism means 188,000 jobs and $868 million in tax revenue for the state.

Both the visitors bureau and the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce were major forces behind Muskegon’s successful effort to restart a ferry service in the city.

The ferry’s start-up prompted Lakeside entrepreneurs to form an association to beautify the business district.

“The Lakeside area is already benefiting from this,” says chamber President Cindy Larsen.

The last time a ferry ran between Muskegon and Milwaukee was 1970, at the end of the 30-year run of the Milwaukee Clipper.

Mr. Wendling expects the Lake Express to be “a major boon for the Muskegon area,” which, like much of Michigan, has lost manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.

“We’re looking for the tourism industry to help fill in some of the places we lost in other areas of commerce,” he says. “We know this type of business is not going to move to China.”

• • •

The Lake Express car-passenger ferry runs between Muskegon, Mich., and Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, a 21/2-hour trip, and carries 250 passengers and 46 cars. Contact www.lake-express.com or 866/914-1010.

Through September, the ferry departs Milwaukee at 6:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and departs Muskegon at 10:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The schedule will change in October.

Round-trip passenger tickets (main cabin): $85 for adults 16 to 66; $82 for seniors 67 and older; $40 for children 5 to 15; free for children 4 and younger.

Round-trip vehicle tickets: $118 automobile, $100 towed trailer, $90 motorcycle with sidecar or trailer, $60 motorcycle, $18 bicycle

For more information, contact Travel Michigan, www.travel.michigan.org or 888/784-7328, or the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitmuskegon.org or 231/724-3100.

The SS Badger’s four-hour cruise between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis., through Aug. 29, departs Ludington at 8 a.m. and 7:55 p.m. and leaves Manitowoc at 1:15 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Ludington is in the Eastern time zone; Manitowec is in Central. Round-trip fares are $78 for adults, $72 for seniors, $36 for children 5 through 15, free for children under 5. Cars are $49 each way. Contact www.ssbadger.com or 888/337-7948.

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