About five months ago, New York-based attorney William Wachtel was representing the owners of a pier in lower Manhattan that was in litigation against Arthur Imperatore, Sr. and his company, NY Waterway.
"The first time I knew of the Imperatores, I was suing them," Wachtel said at a welcoming gathering at the Hyatt on the Hudson in Jersey City Tuesday, announcing the launch of his new Billy Bey Ferry service that he took over from Imperatore's NY Waterway.
Said Wachtel: "I was representing someone who believed that NY Waterway should pay for his pier. I agreed with him. I felt someone should pay. So I met Arthur Imperatore as an adversary."
On that same fateful day in the Manhattan courtroom, Wachtel ran into Don Liloia, an executive vice-president with NY Waterway. Liloia informed Wachtel that NY Waterway was in financial distress and on the verge of bankruptcy.
Wachtel said that he was always an avid lover of ferries, dating back to his childhood, traveling on the ferry that goes from the Bronx to Fire Island.
"It's where my soul began," Wachtel said. "I was in my mother's belly traveling on the ferry to Fire Island. Ferry boats have always been and will be a major part of my life."
So after he reached a whopping $1.6 million agreement for his pier-owning client, Wachtel asked Liloia what needed to be done to help the situation. Liloia recommended a sit-down meeting with the elder Imperatore. It was during this get-together that the relationship became far less than adversarial.
A different relationship
"One Saturday afternoon, I went to Weehawken and sat in Arthur Imperatore's living room," Wachtel said. "I met his family and we had a nice chat. During the course of that weekend, I gave him my promise that I would do everything in my power to keep his dream alive. There is something big in my mind in keeping someone's well-being alive. Arthur gave me, with his good graces, the opportunity to help him. Hopefully, I can live up to expectations and help everyone to understand the majesty of the ferry system."
After the two ironed out details in that Saturday meeting, Wachtel became the primary investor for the NY Waterway's southern routes, namely Jersey City and southern Hoboken (the route directly adjacent to the Erie-Lackawanna train station), but will maintain his ties to NY Waterway and the Imperatore family. Imperatore will maintain ownership of the northern Hoboken and Weehawken lines.
"My good friend, Andrew Young (former UN Ambassador and mayor of Atlanta), once told me that there was no such thing as coincidence, only God's way to do good things," Wachtel said. "That's what I believe happened here."
Because Wachtel has no prior experience in owning a ferry system, he will rely heavily upon the existing NY Waterway employees and personnel.
"They are providing the crews and the maintenance," Wachtel said. "It would be silly for us to think that we could step in and do everything overnight."
NY Waterway still works
That's why there will be a NY Waterway presence in the new BillyBey Ferry system, in name and appearance. The interesting moniker comes from a nickname that Wachtel received from Turkish natives when he lived and worked in Istanbul.
"Instead of calling me 'Billy Boy,' they called me 'Billy Bey,' " Wachtel said. "It seemed to fit."
Many elected officials were on hand at the luncheon Tuesday to welcome Wachtel's new transportation venture. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-Hudson) applauded Wachtel's initiative in taking over the financially struggling ferry line.
"The ferry is a critical part of the synergy of Hudson County," Menendez said. "It was all about Arthur Imperatore's vision. Many people considered it to be a folly at the time. But those who sit on the Transportation Committee in Congress, like I do, recognize the critical vitality of a flourishing ferry service. We appreciate Bill Wachtel stepping in and helping that vitality. We don't see the ferry service as itself, but rather as a part of the entire transportation linkage, with the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, with the PATH, with NJ Transit. It's a powerful in the world of intermodal transportation. It's also not just about economic growth, but also quality of life. The ferry system helps it all. It's a necessary means."
Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy said that he was glad that "someone from the private sector was able to step up and take charge."
"It's not only important to Jersey City and Hudson County, but the whole area," Healy said. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure this vital service remains here and that it is a success here."
Hoboken Mayor David Roberts offered a sentimental journey about ferry travel.
"As a young boy, I rode on the last ferry ride from Hoboken to New York," Roberts said. "I remember that being a sad day. We were losing those ferry boats that offered great romance. The city of Hoboken needs to have ferry boat operations, and we're happy to welcome BillyBey into the community."
Roberts, who is seeking re-election in next month's municipal elections, said that he begins every morning campaigning at the site of the ferry terminal in Hoboken.
"Hoboken would not have experienced the economic growth it has enjoyed without the ferry," Roberts said. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner offered his take, which noted his and other elected officials' past attempt to save the ferry service by using public funding.
"A lot of people spent a lot of time trying to insure that the ferries would remain in operation," Turner said. "It was a tough time getting something done. But all levels of government should open their doors to Mr. Wachtel." Turner said that it was important to have governmental agencies put legislation in place to offer assistance if Wachtel's attempts fail.
Will he win?
How can Wachtel assure financial success where Imperatore failed?
"It's a tough business," Wachtel said. "We are a private concern, but we are in this to make a profit on our investment. It's particularly hard because we're competing with one of the cheapest transportation modes in the world, namely the PATH, and that's federally and state subsidized. We're not. It's a challenge, but challenges like this keep you young. I really believe that this will require a public/private partnership down the road, because we are partners in making sure that this service continues. If the public and the private sectors recognize that we're in this together, then it could succeed. If we're going to succeed, we need innovation, cooperation and luck."
Wachtel knows that he has his work cut out for him.
"This isn't a simple business and we know that," Wachtel said. "But we accomplished what a lot of people said we couldn't do. We helped NY Waterway avoid bankruptcy and kept the ferries operational."
While Wachtel thanked everyone who attended the gathering, he finally got around to thanking the elder Imperatore. When he mentioned Arthur Imperatore, Sr., Wachtel's voice started to crack with emotion. Obviously, the adversarial days are long gone.
"Arthur Imperatore, Sr. is like the father I lost," Wachtel said, holding back tears. "He took me under his wing and showed me the way. I know he's not a well-liked guy. I know everyone can't be his friend. But he's a very special person. When I left his house that day, I knew that there was no way I could let this fail."
Wachtel then looked at Imperatore and addressed him.
"What you created, I can only hope that I can carry on," Wachtel said. "You've created footsteps larger than life. I will continue to honor you every day."
Wachtel then made one last stunning announcement. Eventually, when his fleet of 16 ferries has completely received a facelift and overhaul, they will be renamed. The ferry currently called the Verrazano will be renamed in honor of former long-time Jersey Journal political columnist Peter Weiss, who died in September, 2003, after suffering from heart disease.
"His honesty, integrity and trust had no peers," Wachtel said of Weiss. "The boats need to be fixed. We know that. So when they do, they'll be renamed and this one is in memory of a great journalist."
Port Authority helps
As a show of good faith, the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey has decided to waive its docking fees to BillyBey Ferry, until the company becomes more solvent.
"The PA saw it fit to give us a little relief to start," Wachtel said. "It means a lot. Like Kevin Costner said in 'Field of Dreams,' if you build it, they will come. We're hoping the people will come. We're creating the agencies to make it a relatively lucrative business."
One that will eventually include quality luxury harbor cruises and a possible use of a deserted Randalls Island for a park/ride facility. Bill Wachtel obviously has a vision and he plans to carry it out, even if the vision came in the most bizarre of settings.
"The sky's the limit now," Wachtel said.