A quarter-century after he launched his Water Taxi business on Baltimore's Inner Harbor with a tiny boat, Ed Kane is looking to sell his fleet of 15 blue-and-white vessels and say bon voyage to what he calls his life's "magnum opus."
"I'm about to be 72 years old and am still reasonably vigorous," he said the other day, his Panama hat pulled low, blue eyes dancing behind his glasses. "But I will concede the point that the sunset is coming."
FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions misstated the Living Classrooms Foundation's role at Fort McHenry. The foundation is affiliated with the Patriots of Fort McHenry, which stages events and helps raise money for the national monument. The fort is run by the National Park Service.
Kane is quietly negotiating a deal with the Living Classrooms Foundation, owner of the city's other short-haul water transit service at the harbor, Seaport Taxi. Kane's asking price is about $2 million. Last year, the two companies moved more than half a million people.
"There has been no offer tendered at this point, but we're taking a very serious look at it," said James Piper Bond, Living Classrooms' president.
For passengers, a lone water taxi service would be more efficient and less confusing, Bond said, and greater profits would allow an expansion of commuter service. Meanwhile, fares would not skyrocket under a monopoly, Bond notes. The city, which controls docks at the two most popular stops, Fells Point and Harborplace, has a large say in pricing.
For Kane, the deal - if it goes forward and wins the city's approval - would close a chapter on his colorful reign as a harbor fixture. When he began the business in 1977, at the behest of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, there was so little activity at the Inner Harbor that he recalled the early ferry service as a "voyage to nowhere."
If Seaport Taxi were to purchase Water Taxi, the sale would douse a smoldering rivalry between the gruff, chain-smoking Kane and the oxford-and-chinos-wearing Bond, a soft-spoken man with a distinctive Baltimore lineage.
Bond claims to harbor no ill will toward his longtime competitor, but Kane can recite a litany of skirmishes he's had with Bond, whom he refers to in a dismissive tone as "Jimmy."
For example, Kane believes that Seaport, and Bond, tried to gouge him on docking privileges at Fort McHenry, a site Seaport's parent organization controls. That's just one reason, Kane admits, that it would be a little painful to see Bond win out.
He has an alternative, albeit unlikely, notion. Kane has suggested that the city buy out Seaport, give him a three-year monopoly and he, in turn, would give the business and boats to the city at the end of the run.
That probably won't happen, observers say. Mayor Martin O'Malley has shown no desire for the strapped city to take on new duties. In fact, the opposite is true; last year, the mayor privatized 176 janitorial jobs.
"It's a fairly complex business," said Andrew Murray, who oversees the National Historic Seaport, a wing of Living Classrooms that runs Seaport's nine-boat, 13-stop taxi service. "It's hard to believe the city wants to get involved in another transportation issue."
There is a growing chorus in support of allowing a monopoly taxi service, whoever runs it, to ferry tourists and commuters around the harbor between Canton and Harborplace.
"One consolidated water taxi service is an important first step toward creating a truly efficient water taxi system," said developer C. William Struever, who has waterfront projects from Locus Point to Fells Point.
Tourists account for the bulk of riders for both businesses, but Struever thinks that improved service - and shorter waits - would persuade more residents to cruise to their jobs downtown rather than drive.
And a task force working on a new marina master plan has advised O'Malley to end the dual arrangement, saying it causes unnecessary harbor traffic and confusion among tourists.
With current docking leases up for renewal in March, the O'Malley administration is studying the issue.
"It's too early for us to give our thoughts on it," said Michael E. Rice, deputy director of the Office of Transportation. He said the city's overriding goal is better service.
If Living Classrooms makes the purchase, Bond suggested Kane could stay involved as an adviser.
"He knows the history of the harbor like no one else," Bond said, "and we'd really like him to be part of a consolidation if that's what happens. Ed is part of the fabric of the waterfront."
A former public affairs executive with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Kane started at the harbor in 1975 with a paddle boat business. Back then, the Inner Harbor consisted of dilapidated warehouses and open fields. Strollers often got a nose full of spices wafting from McCormick & Co.'s Light Street plant.
Two years later, Schaefer approached Kane with an idea.
"Why don't you give me a boat that runs from here to there," Kane recalled Schaefer saying. Schaefer was talking about the just-opened Maryland Science Center to the amphitheater by the present-day Harborplace pavilions.
Kane wasn't sure. "God, there's nothing here, and there's nothing there," he remembers saying.
"But there will be," Schaefer assured him.