Fair deal for Swan Boats?

The bid to operate the city’s iconic Swan Boats is so restrictive only one family can likely match the exact specifications that call for oak frames, foot-propelled paddle wheels and mock birds on the back — the same design that’s been around since 1877.

The Paget family boasts the boats are where “Memories are made” — but nobody’s flocking to compete for the $600,000-plus annual business for which bids are due by the end of the month.

“There’s so much uniqueness in this bid, it’s unlikely someone can accommodate it in so short a time frame,” Boston Finance Commission Executive Director Matthew Cahill said.

The Swan Boats — as Boston as the Old North Church and Fenway Park — turned back $25,796 to the city last year, according to an audit provided to the Herald.

Gross revenues topped $665,000, the audit shows, from the boats and souvenirs the family sold.

The Pagets of Jamaica Plain — who did not comment for this story — have traditionally kept ticket prices low, at $3 for adults and $1.50 for children. The greatest expense was for labor costs, at $473,866, but the audits Swan Boats provided to the Boston Parks Department do not have a salary breakdown — which Cahill said the city should demand.

“I’d recommend they ask for a more deep dive in their audits going forward,” Cahill said.

Six boats are set to be launched on the Boston Public Garden lagoon in April, as they have for the past 141 years, if the Pagets win the three-year contract as expected.

The oldest Swan Boat still circling the lagoon was built by John Paget in 1910. John, the son of founder Robert Paget, had six children with his wife, Ella. The rest is Swan Boat history.

The Paget family just completed a three-year contract. The Parks Department owns the lagoon and city officials are required by law to put the popular tourist attraction up for public bid — but the latest request for proposals was released just after New Year’s and will close at the end of the month.

“I’d recommend they put the contract out much earlier, the city could put this out in September and assign it in November to give people time,” Cahill said, adding that Swan Boats provided a unique service that’s difficult to replicate.

The three-ton boats, which carry 20 passengers, have a design that includes the classic large copper or fiberglass white swan in the stern.

The bid lays down specific requirements for any provider to maintain that design: “Every boat must be constructed of oak with copper covered frames and solid brass fittings, with a foot propelled paddle wheel mechanism, which is visually concealed by double-swan reliefs to the size, style and construction of the existing swan boats.”

In addition, the bid calls for any provider to already have the necessary boats — which Cahill said would be difficult to construct in a one-month period — and to be the “primary operations and maintenance company” for the full length of the contract.

As for the quick turnaround on the bid, Parks and Recreation spokesman Ryan Wood said the city is following state law.

The RFP requires the provider pay the city $5,000 up front to operate the boats and also give a percentage of gross ticket sales and souvenir sales.

The clock is ticking on any Swan Boat rivals.


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