(The Center Square) – State Treasurer Dale Folwell has asked the private owners of a North Carolina ferry system to donate the system to the public.
Folwell has called on the Mitchell family, owners of a ferry system between Southport and Bald Head Island, to give the entire system to the village of Bald Head Island or its transportation authority.
Folwell made the plea after village leaders objected to the purchase of the system by the transportation authority. The transaction has been in the works for three years.
"I believe the best outcome for all would be for the Mitchell family to gift the ferry system to the people of Southport, the Village of Bald Head Island or the authority," Folwell said. "It would be a win-win for everyone concerned."
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2017 that created the Bald Head Island Transportation Authority (BHITA) and authorized officials to acquire the ferry system. Members were tasked with creating a plan to either lease, buy or otherwise obtain the system, which includes Deep Point Marina in Southport, the Bald Head Island Terminal on the island, 36 acres of parking, two aluminum monohulls, two aluminum catamarans, one tug boat, one deck barge and 12-seat trams.
The BHITA approved a plan earlier this month to seek a $57 million revenue bond to purchase the ferry system from the family of George Mitchell, which has owned the ferry system for more than three decades. Bald Head Island village council members sent a letter to Folwell, asking him to forego the transaction. It must be approved by the Local Government Commission (LGC), which the treasurer heads.
The village of Bald Head Island council cited a lengthy list of concerns about the sale, including a lack of credit history, the price of the $47 million system, maintenance costs and a possible fare hike. Council members also think residents, property owners and ferry users should have input in the decision.
According to the Bald Head Island's website, it is the southernmost of North Carolina's cape islands, where the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean meet.
Mitchell, a well-known businessman and billionaire, purchased the undeveloped land in 1983 and kept hundreds of acres of the island preserved. Mitchell and his sons prohibited gas-powered cars on the island and chose to have it serviced only by a ferry, with no bridge providing access to the island, according to the treasurer's office. It takes 20 minutes to get from the ferry terminal at Deep Point Marina to the harbor at Bald Head Island, according to the island's website.
Representatives for the Bald Head Island Limited LLC, which the Mitchell family owns, did not respond to requests for comment. Folwell said if the family donates the system, they could receive "tremendous tax benefits."
Folwell also called on the state to address the overall transportation needs for the area. He said there is a state owned and operated Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry a few hundred yards away.
"I'm most concerned about the forgotten citizen who may end up getting the short end of this deal through higher fares. Oftentimes the number of people working on the island is four times the number of residents. Nearly all of them have to leave the island every day and night," Folwell said. "The best way to keep that from happening is for the Mitchell family to continue their philanthropic legacy in the area by donating the system for the benefit of all."
The LGC is scheduled to consider the bond issuance Jan. 4, with a closing anticipated in early February.