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Published: 7/30/2006

Pleasure boats become a big Toledo business

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bill and Lori Heninger enjoy a ride aboard a water taxi on the Maumee River with their 7-year-old son, Zach. Bill and Lori Heninger enjoy a ride aboard a water taxi on the Maumee River with their 7-year-old son, Zach.
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The water taxi picks up passengers on the eastern bank of the Maumee River. The water taxi picks up passengers on the eastern bank of the Maumee River.
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On a breezy Saturday night in Toledo, an engine revved as Rick Brown steered his water taxi into the city dock at Promenade Park.

The black rubber bumper on the bow cushioned the impact with the dock. It also served as a gangway with handrails, connecting boat to land. Boarding passengers, some with children, stepped gingerly onto the floating rickshaw for a ride across the Maumee River to The Docks restaurant complex on the east side.

"Watch your head, watch your step. The boat and the dock will be moving, but not necessarily together," Mr. Brown warned his riders, who paid $3 one way or $5 for a round-trip.

As the riders stepped aboard, neon restaurant signs on the far shore illuminated the river, which also reflected moonlight in motion. Music thumped from the restaurants' waterside patios across the river as a handful of moored speedboats and a yacht bobbed along the far breakwall.

The boat owners were on land eating dinner and having drinks as a DJ blared music at Cousino's Navy Bistro.

"Hey sweetie," Mr. Brown said to a toddler dressed in purple and in the arms of her mother, who was in town for the Jehovah's Witness convention.

To some, it might seem a specialized service reserved for a wealthier, more cosmopolitan city, or a West Coast locale with a milder climate.

But passenger boats run the river through downtown Toledo and continue to be a part of city efforts to become relevant as a waterfront destination, with docks, waterfront homes and condos, and, in this case, floating taxis.

In addition to owning several water taxis, Mr. Brown and his business, Maumee River Navigation Co., secured a city contract July 20 to staff the Promenade Park docks for special city events, such as Rally by the River.

Under city control, boaters paid the same amount, regardless of when they arrived for events, causing complaints. It's prorated now.

Boaters pay from $10 to $22 to tie up, depending on the dock and the number of hours, and Mr. Brown pays the city about 2 percent for the concession. For daylong events, such as the Rock, Rhythm & Blues Festival yesterday, boaters pay from $20 to $50, depending on the size and when they arrive.

"The city was charging the same for Rally by the River as for an all-day event, such the 4th of July," he said.

Mr. Brown's company also runs the concrete boat basin along the riverfront behind the Wyndham Hotel, where larger boats can tie up. He plans a boat show, of sorts, at Promenade Park on Aug. 26 when those with a boat "for sale by owner" can show off their wares for a $15 docking fee.

There are 76 dock spaces at Promenade Park, and the Wyndham boat basin is available to handle boats 40 feet and longer, he said.

Besides the city, Maumee Navigation has a contract with River East Economic Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit agency that works with the city in redevelopment in East Toledo, to operate the docks alongside The Docks complex in International Park.

Mr. Brown's water taxis stop at the Wyndham, The Docks, and Promenade Park to pick up and drop off fares.

The boats run during lunch - 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays. For special events or holidays, taxis run at night no matter the day of the week.

Rally by the River and other city-sponsored summer events are tied to the river. Boosters, especially Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, see the riverfront's development as the future.

"It's good the water taxi and docks are under the same management now, because the water taxi is an amenity for the city to offer. It connects downtown directly to The Docks and helps create a type of entertainment district," said Brian Schwartz, the mayor's spokesman. "It helps with the development of downtown as a destination."

Arthur Bruce, 43, was a recent passenger aboard the water taxi with his wife.

"I've lived in Detroit my whole life and this is a breath of fresh air," he said of his experience. "It's real clean. We came here Thursday and everything is quiet and peaceful."

It may be too quiet for some.

Mr. Brown said he is doing his part to promote Toledo. It's more than just a ride with the seafarer, who captained Cape Cod ferries for much of his career; it's a floating visitors' bureau, of sorts.

Stocky with graying hair and a friendly smile, Mr. Brown built his current business from one taxi sold to him by Tom Cousino, owner of restaurants at The Docks.

With the city contract, Mr. Brown said he installed a new reservation line for the docks and other services (419-787-0579) and his operation now spans "both sides of the river."

"I look at that as a whole corridor entrance to Toledo," he said. It's a corridor that he believes can bring visitors, like the thousands of people in the city for the Jehovah's Witnesses convention, back to Toledo time and again.

"For some of those kids, it was the first boat ride they've ever had. We want them to feel welcome and safe downtown," he said. "They ask questions: What is that? What is that? That's Owens Corning's world headquarters. That's the new I-280 bridge. We always point out what's available, what restaurants there are on both sides of the river."

Water taxis are one small part of what Mr. Finkbeiner has been pushing lately on either side of the river. The latest plan for development of the Marina District, which stresses waterfront homes, is about water.

Under the plan, to be shepherded by newly appointed master developer Larry Dillin, International Park near The Docks would offer some townhomes.

An amphitheater and retail are planned for the 125 acres on the other side of Main Street in the proposed Marina District.

The east side of the river could breathe new life into Toledo and its downtown, they hope.

The last fare boarded Mr. Brown's taxi headed for the music and dinner.

He put the gearbox in reverse, and the powerful engine started swirling the river water as the craft backed away.

"The Maumee River is the largest tributary in the Great Lakes," he said, as he pointed to reddish-brown muck kicked up from the river bottom. "What you see there are from the fields of Indiana."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or 419-724-6077.



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