It’s infrequent that national, state, county and local officials gather together all at one time. It’s even less frequent that they gather on a small pontoon boat to cross county lines.

But that is exactly how some officials arrived to Friday’s event to celebrate the Susquehanna National Heritage Area designation, which the president enacted into law in March. Officials across all levels advocated for more than 11 years that the area be nationally designated.

Several of these officials, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, arrived at Friday’s event at Columbia Crossing River Trails Center on a new water shuttle, which will be the first program for the area under its new national designation. These new River Discovery Boat Tours are set to begin in early July.

The designation will also allow the nonprofit that oversees the area to use National Park Service branding and access national appropriation dollars of about $300,000 toward Lancaster and York Counties’ ecotourism efforts.

“We finally did it,” said Mark Platts, the president of the heritage area nonprofit who spearheaded advocacy efforts for more than a decade.

The water shuttle program will directly connect York and Lancaster counties. In its first year, it will occasionally ferry people from the Zimmerman Center for Heritage in Wrightsville to the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center in Columbia.

It will run a twice per week in 2019 for its pilot year to teach Native American and early American history. In partnership with Long Level Marina, the water shuttles will cost about $18,000 for its first year and $34,000 the following year, to be paid by the National Park Service and state grant funding for at least the first two seasons, Platts said.

The boat will most frequently travel in a one-hour loop with 10-12 passengers to and from the Zimmerman Center. It will serve the more than 448,000 residents in York County and 554,000 residents in Lancaster County. More details will be released when it launches next month, he added.

The designation is already making a difference in Columbia, Claire Storm, 80, said. Storm, a former elementary school principal in Manheim Central School District, founded the River Town Program in 2001 after she retired. She’s been working on programs to improve the Susquehanna River ever since, including advocacy for the new national designation.

“I think it’s going to be such an economic boom,” Storm added.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who was among those celebrating in Columbia, first introduced legislation in 2008 to designate the area. He reintroduced the legislation each session until the designation passed the Senate in mid-February as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. Smucker joined advocacy efforts after he assumed office in 2017, obtained House approval last year, and helped the Dingell Act pass the House in late February. 

Many at the event are excited to support ecotourism and historical programs in the two counties through the water shuttle and the designation.

“We have a rivalry,” said Kevin Schreiber, the York County Economic Alliance president. “We will continue to have a rivalry. But we all have the Susquehanna.”