Consultant’s Plan for Bar Harbor Terminal Includes Bay Ferries

Back in January, I wrote about the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, and its plans to purchase and develop its disused ferry terminal. I was struck by the story, which I first read in the New York Times, because the approach Bar Harbor is taking to the project contrasts so sharply with our own plans to develop a second cruise ship berth in Sydney harbor.

Bar Harbor, which has no cruise ship berth, was subject to the same warnings from the cruise industry that we were — “Cruise lines don’t like tendering,” “You’ll lose their business if you don’t provide docking space.” So when the Nova Scotia government killed the subsidy to the Yarmouth ferry in 2009 and Bay Ferries, which ran the service, pulled out, and Marine Atlantic, which owned the Bar Harbor ferry terminal, decided to dispose of it, the town asked the Maine Port Authority (MPA) to acquire it and convert it to accommodate cruise ships.

By Skeezix1000 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Main Street, Bar Harbor, ME. (Photo by Skeezix1000, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Negotiations ensued and in 2017, the Maine Department of Transport (MDOT) bought the terminal from Marine Atlantic and offered the town of Bar Harbor a choice: buy it for $3.5 million, no strings attached, buy it for $2.5 million “with requirements that the property be developed to include state maritime transportation uses within five years,” don’t buy it (and let MDOT find another purchaser).

In June 2017, Bar Harbor approved a zoning change to allow it to buy the terminal,  but as as the New York Times reported, the idea of converting the facility to accommodate cruise ships was beginning to encounter opposition:

[T]he berthing-pier idea alarmed many residents and further roiled debate over how much the town should cater to the cruise ships. At an acrimonious public session, and in polling, most residents rejected a giant pier for the ships, preferring instead a marina that could have many different uses. One group went to court to try to invalidate the June vote. The letters column of the Mount Desert Islander, the local paper, bristled with angry screeds.

Out of this acrimony came the 40-member Ferry Terminal Property Advisory Committee, which, as Ana Durand, committee member and owner of Bar Harbor’s Acacia House Inn, told the Cape Breton Spectator this week, had eight weeks to explore the various options for the ferry terminal. The committee came back with its report in November 2017, recommending the town pay the $3.5 million for the terminal, but instead of constructing a berthing pier, turn it into a public marina with, as the NYT explained:

…public access for recreational boaters as well as parking, bike rentals and a tram to circulate through town. The cruise ships would still anchor in the bay, but smaller boats could deliver their passengers to the new marina, where they could board tour buses.

In November 2017, Council voted to back the purchase. The committee’s recommendations were passed along to Bermello, Ajamil & Partners, Inc. (BA), which had been assisting with the ferry terminal project since 2010, to incorporate into their “vision” for the development and this past Monday (May 14), BA gave residents a first look at that vision or rather, visions, for the redeveloped ferry terminal.

 

Meeting in the gym

Rather than having BA present to council in its regular meeting space, Town Manager Cornell Knight organized a special town council meeting in the gym of the town high school which Pancho Cole, a Bar Harbor resident and member of the Ferry Terminal Property Advisory Committee, told the Spectator is the largest meeting space in town.

BA presented a number of options for the ferry terminal, none of which included a cruise ship berth but several of which included an “international ferry.” The concepts ran the gamut from A:

 

To C2:

 

The “international ferry” is the CAT to Yarmouth and Durand, Cole and Bar Harbor resident and bike shop owner Joe Minutolo all told the Spectator that a representative from Bay Ferries attended the meeting, although I haven’t been able to confirm who that representative was.

According to BA’s figures, the only money-making options for the terminal are those that include the Yarmouth ferry.

 

Best interests

Following Monday’s special council meeting, the ferry terminal appeared (twice) on the agenda of Tuesday’s regular council meeting, which I watched online.

First was a public hearing on plans to float a 20-year, $3.5 million bond to finance the terminal purchase. Residents will vote on this on June 12 and if the purchase is approved, will have until November 30 (the deadline set by the Maine DOT) to close the deal. Second was a discussion of the BA business plan.

All residents who spoke supported the terminal purchase, if only to ensure any future use of the facility would be decided by town residents. One speaker warned that if the town declined to purchase the terminal, it would be put up for sale on the “open market” and potentially purchased by a “major cruise line” which could then go ahead and develop a cruise pier, despite the objections of many residents.

A common theme was that once the terminal had been purchased, the town could take its time deciding how it should be developed, perhaps assembling another citizens’ committee to consider the options.

Post card circa 1960s. (Source: ebay)

Post card circa 1960s. (Source: ebay)

Several residents challenged BA’s figures, particularly those related to design and landscaping, with one speaker pointing out that Bar Harbor probably had more designers per capita than any other town in the US, many of whom were willing to work very hard to ensure the project served the best interests of the town. Town Manager Cornell Knight also noted that while CES, the Maine-based engineering and survey company assisting with the BA report, estimated the cost of demolishing the old terminal at $2 million (the report by the citizens’ committee had put it at $1 million) it also recognized the terminal would have some salvage value. Knight suggested the firm should be asked to put a dollar figure on that value.

And Joe Minutolo, who also spoke at the meeting, said the town needed to tap into federal and state grants for waterfront development and explore partnerships, fundraising and philanthropy, once the purchase was approved. Minutolo also raised the possibility of using an increase in cruise ship fees to help pay for the purchase, arguing that the cruise lines will benefit from the bigger waterfront, so why not ask them to help pay for it? As a resident of the CBRM, where no one has ever, to my knowledge, suggested the cruise industry, which will be the biggest beneficiary of the second berth, should be asked to help pay for it, this aspect of the discussion really caused my ears to perk up.

Most speakers stressed the importance of developing the facility for the town, not the cruise industry. One gentleman, who said he was speaking on behalf of those who don’t have money but do have boats, said access to the water was “psychologically important” to the public.

And then there was the question of the “international ferry.” Councilor Peter St. Germain expressed reservations about “relying on Bay Ferries,” (which he mistakenly believed to be a government-owned entity, a misconception Council Chair Paul Paradis quickly cleared up).

“The provincial government of Nova Scotia has…unfunded a previous service,” said St. Germain, adding that relying “heavily” on that service returning and continuing was “a little scary to me.”

But Councilor Judie Noonan, while agreeing the town should proceed slowly, should it get the green light to purchase the terminal on June 12, was more optimistic about the possible return of the Yarmouth ferry service. In fact, she said she’d like to see it include a ferry between Bar Harbor and Portland, with some co-marketing of the towns.

 

Wrongheaded

Watching the Bar Harbor council meeting served to reinforce my earlier impression (expressed in that last article on the subject) that we got it all wrong when it came to weighing the pros and cons of the second berth in Sydney — chiefly because we didn’t weigh the pros and cons, allowing our hand to be forced by the cruise industry instead.

If a town of 5,200 can come up with 40-member citizens’ committee to consider a $3.5 million purchase, surely a municipality the size of the CBRM could have managed something similar to consider a $20 million investment? (Imagine, for example, if such a committee had been given access to the environmental assessment of the property which the CBRM has had to resort to expropriating for the project; how might that have affected its recommendations to council?)

Race track on Norwegian Joy cruise ship. (Source: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Race track on Norwegian Joy cruise ship. (Source: Norwegian Cruise Line)

I know our situations are very different in some ways — cruise traffic represents just a small fraction of Bar Harbor’s tourism industry; the town welcomes 3.3 million visitors annually and is obviously better positioned to stand up to the cruise industry than we are. But talking to Bar Harbor citizens really makes you think. For example, when I mentioned to Joe Minutolo that the cruise lines tell us they don’t like tendering he recounted a conversation he’d had with representatives of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) who were arguing that tendering was “dangerous.” Minutolo, who said the data shows the accident rate on tendering is under 1%, told them:

[Y]ou guys have figured out how to put a standing wave, a waterslide, a big-screen TV…a race track, all of these different things on a boat. If you guys wanted to make tendering safe…if that’s…your biggest problem, I think you’ve got people that could figure it out.

Why didn’t we say that?

 

SIDEBAR

Brief History of Yarmouth-Maine Ferry Service

In 1949, the Canadian government announced it wanted to establish ferry service between Nova Scotia and the United States and launched a competition to choose an American home port — a competition won by Bar Harbor.

The history of Yarmouth-Maine ferry service was summarized in the 2012 Report of the Expert Panel on a Yarmouth-US Ferry, and as the report was funded by the Nova Scotia government, I have no qualms about borrowing its handy timeline:

 

Source: Report of the Expert Panel on a Yarmouth-US Ferry, 2012.

Source: Report of the Expert Panel on a Yarmouth-US Ferry, 2012.

You have probably noticed something missing from this potted history of Nova Scotia-Maine ferry service: government subsidies.

As the report of the expert panel notes elsewhere:

With the termination of the Scotia Prince, effective at the end of the 2004 season, and with only the CAT service to Bar Harbor operating, overall passenger volume between Yarmouth and Maine, despite a bump-up on the CAT, dropped sharply in 2005 to about 150,000. This was less than half the number only three years earlier.

The contraction of traffic on the CAT continued in 2006, falling by almost 20%; then by a further 13% in 2007. Meanwhile, marine fuel prices had been rising rapidly since 2003, more than tripling by 2008 (Exhibit 2.2). The commercially toxic combination of falling ridership and rising fuel cost (which is a particularly significant issue on a high-speed vessel) led to a series of agreements between Bay Ferries and the Government of Nova Scotia under which service was maintained—and in fact extended in 2006 to include Portland on certain days of the week—while the Government provided subsidies that increased from $1.25 million in 2006 to $8.9 million in 2009 for a total of $18.6 million. (The CAT service had operated without subsidy prior to 2006.)

It was the Darrell Dexter government’s 2009 decision to discontinue the subsidies that caused Bay Ferries to end services to Maine.

But that decision was about as popular as New Coke, hence the title of that 2012 report: “Re-establishing a Yarmouth-US Ferry?” The upshot, you will no doubt recall, was the 2014 reboot of the Yarmouth-Portland service, via a contract with Nova Star Cruises, a  joint venture between Quest Navigation in Maine and Singapore-based ST Marine Ltd., which built the 1,200-passenger Nova Star ferry.

Stephen McNeil’s government promised $21 million over seven years to support the service while the federal Liberal government coughed up $2.5 million for terminal upgrades in Yarmouth. In the end, the government poured $41.5 million into the ferry service, which completed its last trip in October 2015, after which the vessel was seized in Portland harbor for unpaid debts.

The government then entered into a 10-year agreement with Bay Ferries to reinstate the CAT passenger and vehicle service, which will launch its third season as of June 8, operating until October 8. According to the CBC, the NS government has put $32 million into the service since it was restarted. In addition, the government of Nova Scotia has agreed to foot the bill for $1.5-$2.0 million worth of upgrades to the Portland ferry terminal demanded by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP). The town of Portland refused to pay for the work which is expected to run to $7 million.

When the USCBP threatened to end customs services at the terminal in 2017, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald said they were looking at all options for the Cat Ferry, including Bar Harbor.

Joe Minutolo, Pancho Cole and Ana Durand, all of whom served on Bar Harbor’s Ferry Terminal Property Advisory Committee, told me that the prospect of Bay Ferries returning to their port was brought up late in the day, as they worked toward their November 2017 deadline. Said Minutolo:

We actually had no real idea that there was some conversation going on with our Town Manager and then, right at the end of it, he did bring it forward, we were a little surprised by it because it kind of threw a little curve ball at all of us but…it’s just about viability, if it’s going to work out, fabulous. If it’s not going to fit into the plan, great. Some people have a feeling that it kind of keeps the door open for a cruise ship pier and there’s worries about that. I hope that that’s not the case…That’s one of the biggest things that’s been dividing this town is this whole conversation about putting a cruise ship pier in…It’s just totally out of scale with what we’ve got going on.

 

 

 

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