Ship Island Excursions used to run ferry service to the island from Biloxi and could again by spring.
On Tuesday, the City Council approved Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich’s request for $165,000 for a city pier. It will be built between Harrah’s Gulf Coast and Margaritaville Resort Biloxi at Point Cadet.
“We’ve been looking for an appropriate location for the ferry service for a number of years now,” said Capt. Louis Skrmetta, whose family operates Ship Island Excursions. “We think it’s a great location,” primarily because there is plenty of parking in the area.
In Gulfport, where Ship Island Excursions has three boats and will continue to operate, a busy Saturday in the summer can see 400 cars, Skrmetta said. He anticipates parking needed for 200 cars at peak times when service ramps up in Biloxi.
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He set a goal of mid-May, though the service needs approval from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and the National Park Service.
“This is something we’ve been working on for months,” said Gilich, who as a teenager worked as a deckhand on the Ship Island boat in Biloxi.
“The Skrmetta family, which operated a ferry service from Biloxi for years, committed to me last year that they were ready to resume operations of this popular family-oriented attraction in Biloxi, and the secretary of state has agreed in principle to a Tidelands lease at this site,” Gilich said.
“We’re just waiting on his signature on the dotted line and we’re ready to get moving.”
Skrmetta said the pier, which is at the eastern of the Harrah’s Gulf Coast property, is in deep enough water for one of the big boats that operates in Gulfport if there is a need for that.
But he’s looking at something faster and bigger than the old Pan American Clipper that used to run out of Biloxi and is still used for the Biloxi Bay Area Chamber of Commerce history cruises.
“We want to do something in Biloxi that will cater to people staying in casino hotels,” Skrmetta said.
He’s considering a more updated boat that is faster and can offer shorter excursions. He also envisions working with the hotels and casinos in Biloxi and having docks where guests could be picked up for an excursion, as his grandfather did years ago.
“Every hotel had a dock. He’d stop and drop people off,” Skrmetta said.
He’s also talking with Hosemann about offering ferry service to Deer Island.
The dock the state built on Deer Island is directly across from the pier the city will build, Skrmetta said. He thinks a 12-passenger, shallow draft boat could work, but says there are things that must be done on the island, such as restrooms, storm shelters and nature trails.
“Maybe we could work with the state on providing guided tours,” he said. “I think it has some potential.”
These plans also would work with the proposed amusement at Margaritaville Resort and bring families to that area of East Biloxi, he said.
“Fifty percent of our business is families. That’s a huge market for us,” Skrmetta said.