Everglades National Park seeking tour boat operation bids

Everglades National Park -- Gulf Coast Visitor Center

815 Oyster Bar Lane, Everglades City, FL

Everglades National Park soon might have a new tour-boat operator for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Park tours currently are run locally by Everglades City Mayor Sammy Hamilton Jr. through his business, Everglades National Park Boat Tours Inc., which was founded in 1959.

The park is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which opened up a competitive bid for two of the three boat tour sites in the park, including the one run by Hamilton, earlier this year.

Contractors must bid to service both sites and bids must be received by July 23. The new contract could go into effect Oct. 1, according to park service documents.

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, whose district includes Everglades City, has drafted a resolution for Tuesday’s commission meeting urging the Park Service to maintain its relationship with Hamilton. He said if the contract were opened up to bid there was a “good chance” Hamilton’s company would no longer run tours.

“To sit back and do nothing and watch a business that’s been around in Everglades City for 50 years die without us doing anything about it would be wrong,” Coletta said.

Reached on his cell phone, Hamilton said he didn’t immediately have time to comment.

Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for Everglades National Park, said Hamilton’s company was working on an extension to an expired contract and the agency’s rules prohibit contracts with concessionaires for longer than 10 years without opening up for new bids.

She wasn’t aware of Coletta’s resolution.

“I don’t know if that would make a difference,” Friar said.

This isn’t the first time Hamilton’s hold on tour-boat operations has been threatened. Six years ago, the park service opened up competitive bidding on Hamilton’s site, but following a federal lawsuit filed by Hamilton and a cancelled contract with a Virginia-based company, the Everglades City mayor retained control.

The U.S. Coast Guard fined Hamilton $60,000 after a 2002 accident involving one of his tour boats for failing to notify the agency after the boat ran aground a few weeks before the incident and for an inability to provide an accurate count of those aboard immediately following the accident.

No one died in the accident and no serious injuries were reported among the 34 people on board.

Coletta said he supported Hamilton during his company’s previous struggles, as well. Coletta added he isn’t sure what affect the county’s resolution might have.

“Even though we don’t know the end result, it’s important for business owners like Sammy Hamilton to know commissioners hear their plight,” he said.

Combined annual gross revenue for the two sites was $1.8 million in 2006, according to park service documents.

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