Harrison County

Gulfport has the ferry and the money, and Biloxi wants a slice of both

Ship Island Excursions could get a new pavilion and dock at the Gulfport Harbor thanks to a $1 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The Skrmetta familyoperates the ferry to Ship Island. They also want to sail out of Biloxi to get more casino and convention business.
Ship Island Excursions could get a new pavilion and dock at the Gulfport Harbor thanks to a $1 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The Skrmetta familyoperates the ferry to Ship Island. They also want to sail out of Biloxi to get more casino and convention business.

The city must use a $1 million grant for the Ship Island ferry or the money will go elsewhere, Chief Administrative Officer John Kelly told the City Council on Tuesday.

The grant from the state Department of Transportation for a new ferry dock at the Gulfport Harbor was awarded years ago.

“They have said we’ll lose the money and you all know the city that wants the money,” Kelly said.

Biloxi has made it known that if Gulfport isn’t going to use all or part of the grant, Biloxi wants a share.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said in his State of the City address in February he is working with the Skrmetta family, which owns and operates Ship Island Excursions, and expects to re-establish daily trips.

“Everyone remembers those boat rides on the Pan American Clipper and the Pan American,” Gilich said in his speech. “How much fun did you have on the beaches and surf on Ship Island? Another great experience for our visitors.”

Capt. Louis Skrmetta of Ship Island Excursions said there are opportunities for both cities and he thinks the grant will cover new docks in both cities.

The “One Coast” campaign launched by Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes promotes the idea that what is good for one city in South Mississippi benefits the entire Coast. Hewes also has said Gulfport will diligently promote its own economic opportunities.

“We do want the Ship Island Ferry boat to stay in Gulfport,” Councilman R. Lee Flowers said.

“We want to stay in Gulfport,” Skrmetta said.

The plan is to use the MDOT grant to build a new dock and pavilion at the harbor. Mobile units will be brought in for ticket sales and restrooms and pulled out when a tropical storm approaches, or moved temporarily every six months to comply with flood regulations.

Biloxi and Skrmetta want a portion of the grant to rebuild the Ship Island pier near the foot of Interstate 110 and Ship Island Excursions would lease the pier back from the state. He envisions taking families, casino guests and conventioneers on trips to Ship Island on weekends through late fall to extend his company’s season.

“We want to be able to accommodate 150 people for cocktail and sunset cruises,” he said. “We really want to be aggressive with the conventions coming to Biloxi — give them another reason to come here with their conventions.”

The problem in both locations is parking.

“We have to have parking,” Skrmetta said. “It’s critical.

“The reason why we left Biloxi originally was the lack of public parking.”

Skrmetta explored moving the excursion boats from the Gulfport Harbor to the Port of Gulfport. To make it work, he needed an agreement to share the Island View Casino parking garage, but that idea ended when Island View announced its expansion.

When a new casino is built at the Gulfport Harbor, Skrmetta said parking will be a problem again.

“We’re in the same fix in Biloxi,” he said.

All of his plans are contingent on the National Park Service, which must approve any ferry service to Ship Island.

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