New billboards, designed to promote Muskegon as a travel destination, will go up immediately following the Huntington Tall Ships Challenge in August, featuring the new ferry service planned by Lake Express LLC. The service will restore a ferry route between Milwaukee and Muskegon after a 33-year absence and add a unique new wrinkle to the region’s tourism industry.
The goal for tourism promoters now is to begin building early awareness of the ferry service among travelers to the state this summer, said Joanne Hatch, Muskegon County’s tourism development director and head of the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We want to get people talking about this while they’re here and go ‘Wow, we can come back next year and do this,’” Hatch said.
After years of planning, the final ingredient for restoring ferry service between Muskegon and Milwaukee came late last month when the U.S. Maritime Administration approved a $14.5 million loan guarantee for Lake Express, which has commissioned an Alabama ship-building company, Austal USA, to build the $18.5 million ferry that will transport vehicles and passengers across the lake and back three times a day during the summer.
Commencement of the ferry service is seen as a major boost to the region’s tourism economy.
David Lubar of Lake Express, president of Lubar & Co., a Milwaukee investment firm, sees the development of new hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses in both port communities as a result of the ferry service.
“It can create tremendous economic development on both sides of the lake,” Lubar said.
Lubar & Co. became interested in the venture about two and a half years ago when approached by the Port of Milwaukee. The investment firm, which is involved primarily in manufacturing ventures, closely scrutinized the idea and, after a due diligence process and extensive market research, found it economically viable, Lubar said.
“It’ll be a fun product to provide and a fun product to use,” he said. “It’s one we have studied carefully and it has economic benefits.”
And if those benefits pan out, Lubar & Co. will examine launching other high-speed ferry services elsewhere.
“If this is successful, we would certainly expand the operation to include other routes throughout the lakes and other ports of the country,” Lubar said.
The ferry will seek to primarily serve leisure travelers going between Michigan and Wisconsin and beyond. The main target customers are travelers who would rather avoid the legendary traffic delays on the Chicago freeways and significantly reduce their travel time.
The catamaran-style ferry will transport up to 46 cars and 250 passengers at a time.
While details are still in the works, Lake Express will gear the 2-hour, 20-minute crossing as an event that people will enjoy — and not just a trip across the lake.
“The idea is to make it an experience as well as a mode of transportation,” Lubar said. “When this service begins, people will have an entirely new perspective on travel between Michigan and Wisconsin. Lake Express will transform the 70 miles of water between Muskegon and Milwaukee from an obstacle into an opportunity for a pleasant excursion.”
In preparing for the ferry service, which will begin next June, Hatch “suspects” the Muskegon County CVB will earmark a good share of its future marketing budget for the Milwaukee market to urge people in Wisconsin to visit Muskegon.
The ferry service also holds benefits for the entire region’s tourism industry, Hatch said, and plays strongly into the goals of two regional tourism promotions in which Muskegon participates: the “Beachtowns” campaigns with several other shoreline destination communities, and “Michigan’s West Coast” with visitors bureaus in Grand Rapids and Grand Haven.
“It just expands on everything we’ve been building toward,” Hatch said. “This will enhance all of West Michigan.”
Details for far broader marketing plans are still to be worked out and will likely involve visitors bureaus in the West Michigan region, as well as in Milwaukee and the travel agencies for the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, she said.