Water taxi bid causes surprise


A Little Italy restaurateur and veteran of the neighborhood's bocce imbroglio has waded into another long-running battle: to operate water taxi service in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Mary Ann Cricchio, owner of Da Mimmo restaurant, has submitted a bid to the city to become Baltimore's sole provider of an expanded tourist and commuter service.

Also vying for the contract, which is expected to be awarded by the end of next month, are three current and former water taxi operators -- all of them bitter rivals in the past, two of them joining together with a shared bid.

One of the competitors -- whose elaborate plan calls for 19th-century paddle boats and a costumed crew -- complains that the call for bids was written to favor the joint proposal from the Living Classrooms Foundation and Ed Kane's Water Taxis -- a charge the city denies.

But Cricchio's involvement has caused the biggest stir, simply because she is known for operating a restaurant, not boats. Cameron Kane, owner of Ed Kane's Water Taxis, did a double-take when Cricchio showed up at a conference for bidders.

"I was absolutely shocked to see Mary Ann Cricchio at the table," Kane said. "I don't know what someone in the restaurant business is doing sitting at the table for a water taxi contract."

While Cricchio and her two partners in the bid have no experience with water taxis, they contend their backgrounds in business and tourism make their proposal a strong one. Cricchio, who has served on several tourism boards, did not return telephone messages seeking comment. But one of her partners, Mike Riedal, responded on her behalf.

"The business experience is extensive," said Riedal, a Harford County resident who said he worked for many years establishing arcades in Texas, Arkansas and Alabama like those found in Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. He also plotted truck routes as a one-time Federal Express employee -- relevant experience, he says, because his group's proposal calls for shuttle buses that would take passengers to inland destinations such as the Walters Art Museum.

"Certainly we have people we're consulting with that have a great deal of knowledge in the water taxi business and boating business," Riedal added.

Move to single operator

The city, which until recently contracted with two water taxi companies, wants to hire a single operator that would make the primarily tourist-oriented harbor shuttle more practical for commuters. In exchange for providing expanded service, the company would get exclusive rights to all city-owned landings.

In October, Baltimore Development Corp. and the city's Department of Transportation issued a formal request for proposals to operate the water taxi service starting next October. The deadline for bids, which the quasi-public BDC will not make public, was Nov. 19.

A panel representing BDC, transportation and several other city agencies plans to review the bids late this month, with hopes that a contract will be awarded by the end of next month, said Andrew Frank, the BDC's executive vice president and interim Inner Harbor coordinator.

Although the city had hoped to attract bidders with experience running water taxis in other parts of the country, only three offers were received, all of them local.

One of the contenders is Kane's company, which has provided water taxi service in Baltimore for 25 years and is the only current operator. It teamed up with rival Seaport Taxi, run by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, to submit a single bid. When the partnership between Living Classrooms and Kane's company was announced about a month ago, Seaport Taxi stopped operations and laid off workers.

Before announcing their partnership last month, the two taxi services had clashed for years over landing sites, with Kane's company accusing Seaport of tapping personal connections to get the best locations.

While the bidding has put that rivalry to rest, it has revived an old one by drawing a former competitor, Ron Morgan, into the mix.

Morgan was subcontractor for Kane's company for a couple years. But they split bitterly in the early 1980s, and Morgan launched his own water taxi service, Harbor Shuttle. He sold it to Living Classrooms in 2000 and went on to criticize that operation's safety record in March when, in the city's first fatal water taxi accident, a Seaport vessel flipped in a sudden storm, killing five people.

Period costume

Morgan, competing under the name Transentertainment, said his plan would enhance the experience for tourists by using six 100-passenger vessels designed to look like 19th-century paddle boats, each with a crew in period costume.

The other bidders were taking a less colorful approach. Kane said she would continue using the catamarans she already has on the water. Cricchio's group would use V-bottom boats.

Morgan contends that the request for bids was written to benefit Seaport Taxi. He points to a list of "evaluation criteria" that includes the "ability to secure federal transportation funding" and a "track record in providing job training and employment opportunities for Baltimore City youth and residents."

Morgan contends those requirements are unnecessary -- and meant to favor Living Classrooms, which works with youth and has received federal grants.

'Make it fair'

"If you want to do business on the water, you're forced to deal with Living Classrooms," he said. "We're not saying we should get it [the contract]. We're saying make it fair. It shouldn't be one company that's got a lock on it."

The BDC's Frank said failing to fulfill the funding or job-training criteria will not knock a company out of the running. But he said the city believes federal funding will be needed to keep the less-profitable commuter service viable. Frank also said the job-training component could be fulfilled by joining with another company or agency -- the city has more than 30, he noted -- that matches jobs with people in need of them.

"We were serious about the goal of having an operation that provided these kind of job opportunities for city residents," Frank said. "The two existing operators have a history of doing that. We didn't want to lose that component."

Cricchio's team is not complaining about the bid criteria. And by contrast, that group looks more congenial, having come together over the likes of linguine alla carbonara. Cricchio and Riedal are bidding for the contract along with Robert Smith, a city resident who Riedal said once had a financial services business. The three have never been in business together but know one another because Riedal and Smith are longtime patrons of Da Mimmo, Riedal said.

Cricchio has been in the middle of more than a few Baltimore battles, including a 2002 fight over lights on the bocce courts beside her restaurant. She angered some of her restaurant suppliers with a March 2003 letter that encouraged them -- pressured them, critics said -- to buy tickets to a fund-raiser for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

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