By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor

Pictured above is an artist’s rendering of the “Mountaineer Star” parked at the city front in Morgantown.

If you are looking to make an event unique and memorable, what about having it on the water?  The only issue you might foresee is that there is not much available is the immediate area.  However, that could change in the near future!

Michael Hughes, owner of ACCESS H2O, has his headquarters currently located in Millsboro, PA, but he is looking to relocate along the waterfront in Morgantown … and he’s not coming alone!  He’ll be bringing along his newest purchase, now named the Mountaineer Star, a vessel that was once part of the Gateway Clipper fleet prior to 2005.  It was purchased 12 years ago and put in service in the Tunica, Mississippi area, and that is where Hughes purchased it in early 2017.  Since that time, he has been working on extensive renovations and intends to make Morgantown its home.

He and three friends went to Mississippi and made the 1,250-mile trip back to PA, traveling up the Mississippi, Ohio and Monongahela Rivers.  They tied up at night, took their time – 15 days to be exact – and treated it as a “mini-vacation”, he said.

Mr. Hughes has a passion for boats; he has been in the towboat industry all of his life.  He summed up going to work every day, saying that fortunately for him, his vocation is also his avocation; he finds it exciting and it puts a smile on his face seeing the progression of its renovation.

“The boat is in good condition.  Just because it was built in 1965, its birth date doesn’t mean that it is aged,” he explained.  “These vessels are held to much higher standards.  Passenger safety is a real priority and the U.S. Coast Guard makes thorough and rigorous inspections.  Those inspections require that the vessels be constantly upgraded to meet their standards.  When we’re finished it will be as good or better than a new vessel.  It will be a five star venue!”

Hughes said they are deep in the thralls of renovations right now, starting at the whistle light and going down to the wheels.  Beginning with new engines, generators, and all propulsion equipment, they will later be gutting the entire interior – new walls, ceilings, floors, insulation, HVAC, plumbing and bathrooms, tables and chairs will be installed.

“Honestly, I have a long list and I don’t believe there is a thing I don’t have on that list,” he affirmed.

The vessel is 125-ft. long, 33 ft. wide, and three decks tall.  The first two decks are enclosed and climate controlled; the third deck is open air.  He said everything on the first deck will be ADA compliant.  A small galley kitchen will be included for smaller events; larger events will be catered.  It will also include a dance floor and will hold 325 people for casual cruising and 240 for formal sit-down affairs that will allow ample room for tables and chairs.

Hughes added, “Morgantown has plenty of good restaurants and they don’t need another one.  I do not want to be a competitor for these area restaurants.  I want to be viewed as their ‘partner’ so that restaurants and caterers in the surrounding area will be utilized and will benefit from the Mountaineer Star being moored locally.  We hope to enhance local businesses as well as the community and its surrounding area.”

He noted that he had been approached about making it a private vessel.  “I didn’t think that was appropriate,” he stated.  “I want it to be shared with everyone – for both public and private events!  It can be used for weddings, receptions, reunions, captain’s dinner cruises, children’s theme cruises, educational cruises, and more.   People can celebrate anything they would celebrate on land; it will just be propelled on the waterway.”

As is visible, already new trim colors of old gold and blue have begun to be added to the newly located smoke stacks.  Three stars hang between the two smoke stacks, representative of the Hughes couple’s three grandsons.

ACCESS H2O was awarded a CMAQ grant a month ago to help with propulsion equipment replacement and they are waiting on another infra-grant to help construct the barge, storage units, etc. along the waterfront.  They are awaiting those funds that should be announced in April.   He says they are right on schedule.

“We have already gutted the interior and replaced steel and framing on the second deck.  Then we’ll get into the insulation.  It’s a big job,” he said.  “We start at the chimney and work our way down.  I’m working on it all the time.  I’m so passionate about it, I get excited going to work every day!”

Named the Mountaineer Star, of course, means that you can expect to see lots of old gold and blue!  Trimming it out in Mountaineer colors has already begun.

Hughes says their intention is that the Mountaineer Star will be in business 365 days a year.  “Our most active time will be from April through New Year’s Day – as weather permits,” he continued.  “We’ll stay moored during icy conditions, but during those times, events can still be held; they just won’t be moving on the waterway.  However, because of agitation of the water coming over the dam, the boat should be sitting in still water most of its time in Morgantown.  We’ll be getting close to being operational by the end of 2018, and then it will be full steam ahead and we anticipate being fully up and running by April of 2019.”

For those who might consider a “cruising” event and would like assistance in the planning, Hughes says he will have a sales and marketing person working in the office who can help them with making arrangements for a caterer, entertainment, etc.

He spoke of the Charleston area that has a nice sternwheel following.  “They have really embraced the Kanawha River, and it, just like the Monongahela River, was an industrial river at one time.  They are beautiful natural waterways, and especially in the Morgantown area, it is an untapped resource,” he said.  “I see the Mountaineer Star as a catalyst for more economic development in Mon County.”

Since Morgantown will be the boat’s home port, Hughes said he and his wife first studied the demographics and the first thing on the agenda was to meet with Morgantown City Council.

“I found them to be very progressive people and they have been very cooperative.  They opened up their hearts and were supportive,” he said.  “I think everyone will benefit from this and it will be a ‘business breath of fresh air’ to work with people like this.  We have already joined the Mon County Chamber of Commerce and we are anxious to fit into the community and become an active part of it.”

Hughes concluded, “There is no better way to appreciate what has been developed on the riverfront than to witness it by moving on the waterway.  We hope this will be a game-changer for Morgantown.”

Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom said, “We’ve been pushing to accent the waterways around Morgantown.  We’re building up the waterfront and this avenue has not yet been tapped.  Waterways following the river south through Fairmont could provide scenic rides and would be wonderful for economic development throughout the area.  This has even sparked some considerations for fixing up Granville Park.  Something like this vessel taking up residence in Morgantown should have been done long ago.”