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Erik Burgess, Published March 18 2014

New federal rules could sink historical S.S. Ruby Red River boat tours

MOORHEAD – A city councilwoman here is floating ideas to help salvage the S.S. Ruby, a historical Red River boat tour that could be sunk by new federal regulations.

The S.S. Ruby was already operating at a loss, and new U.S. Coast Guard standards would likely make those losses even greater, said Christine Laney, project manager for River Keepers, the Red River advocacy group that has operated the Ruby since about 2001.

River Keepers are working on selling the boat, although Moorhead City Councilwoman Nancy Otto said she wants to find partnerships to help save it.

“It’d be just a real tragedy if we couldn’t keep it, I think,” Otto said.

In the summer months, the Ruby offered small groups a 45-minute narrated tour of the history, geography and wildlife of the Red River, sometimes featuring local foresters and historians. Passengers boarded the boat near the Hjemkomst Center, just beneath the First Avenue North bridge.

When asked if there was a chance to save the boat, Laney took a long pause before responding.

“There could be possibilities,” she said. “We still have the boat. We haven’t sold it yet. But as far as operating (in 2014), we don’t have captains to do that.”

The Red River is a navigable waterway, so boats like the Ruby are required by the Coast Guard to have a captain, a first mate and somebody monitoring on land, Laney said.

But the mandatory class for licensing captains, held in Duluth, recently changed from a three-day to a 10-day course. It was already difficult and expensive to find captains, who have to have 360 days of on-the-water experience, Laney said.

“To find captains who want to work nights and weekends in the summer for little pay, and then add the 10-day class in Duluth on top of that,” she said. “And you’re paying for hotel and meals and the test and the CPR and first aid (training).”

The Ruby had about 1,500 passengers in 2013, down from about 3,000 in 2012, according to an annual River Keepers report. The Ruby did not operate in 2011 due to high water levels. In 2010, there were about 1,900 passengers.

River Keepers made about $12,266 on the Ruby and canoe and kayak rentals in 2013, according to the annual report. It made $22,210 in 2012, but generally speaking, the cost to operate the boat is always greater than the cash it brings in, Laney said.

The feds also keep lowering the carrying capacity of the Ruby. It used to be able to hold around 20 passengers. Then it was lowered to 17. It was recently lowered again to 14, Laney said.

With reduced seating and more rigorous standards for captains, it’s no longer feasible to operate the Ruby “without incurring huge financial costs,” Bob Backman, executive director of River Keepers, said in an email to city officials.

In his email, Backman asks the city to scrub city brochures and literature of references to the Ruby.

Otto has suggested some ideas to save the Ruby – perhaps partnering with Fargo or with the Fargo Park District. In a council meeting Monday, she asked the city manager to pursue these options.

“I think that mutual support for something like this, it enhances the downtown experience no matter which side of the river you’re living on,” Otto said.

But the Fargo Park District already provides funding to River Keepers, said Jim Larson, the park district’s director of finance and human resources.

The district gave $20,000 to River Keepers this year and $10,000 last year. Larson said they contribute to the River Keepers because it provides services that the Park District would want to provide if River Keepers didn’t exist.

Larson and Fargo Park District Executive Director Roger Gress said Tuesday they haven’t been approached by River Keepers about the Ruby.

“We ultimately would have to look at what it provides, the impacts it has and present it to our board once we’ve studied it,” Gress said. “We certainly would sit down and listen to the proposal.”

The future of the River Keepers canoe and kayak rentals is also uncertain, Laney said.

The city owns the rental booth, which is beneath the First Avenue North bridge, but Ruby staff run the booth, said Holly Heitkamp, parks and recreation director. The city doesn’t have funding to staff the booth, she said.

Laney said they were still investigating the feasibility of continuing kayak and canoe rentals because the group would still like to have a presence on the Red.

“It’s a different feeling, if you’re on the river rather than next to the river, or just crossing over the bridge where you don’t really have any connection to it at all,” Laney said. “That’s been a really good educational tool for us to be able to have people on the river and feel more a part of the river.”

On Monday, Moorhead leaders discussed implementing an $18 million, long-term river corridor master plan. Part of that plan included protecting and showcasing the history of the Red River.

Otto said the boat tour fits perfectly in that plan.

“It just really helped complete the tourist attraction over at the Hjemkomst Center,” she said. “So, it’s just a shame when we don’t have that option.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518