BAR HARBOR – Bar Harbor town council has voted unanimously to authorize its town manager to sign a five-year lease that would allow Bay Ferries to sail The Cat ferry to and from Bar Harbor as opposed to Portland.
The vote took place Oct. 16.
Bay Ferries president and CEO Mark MacDonald joined the council meeting via telephone. He said the company is still in the process of receiving cost estimates for work required at the terminal facility to begin sailings in June 2019.
Engineers have done a physical examination of the north pier, MacDonald noted, which will require repair and upgrade work to ensure the infrastructure can absorb the berthing energy of the ship when she’s docking.
“All of this work which I’m describing, would, in accordance with the Bay Ferries proposal, be undertaken at our expense and the province’s expense,” he said. “None of that would fall to the town.”
Discussions continue between Bay Ferries and the United States coast guard. The most recent talks had taken place earlier that day and were described as “positive and productive.” Council was told regulations don’t preclude other public uses for the terminal property, even with the presence of a ferry operation.
MacDonald also referred to correspondence from the provincial government in his remarks.
“We provided a letter today from the province of Nova Scotia, confirming the province’s willingness to provide a guarantee,” he said.
On Wednesday the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal was asked how much the move to Bar Harbor will cost the province, but it couldn’t offer a final figure yet.
“Any final decision and financial commitment is subject to the province’s approval and will require an amended service agreement,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal department spokesperson Marla MacInnis. “We are working with US Customs, Bar Harbor and the operator to understand the requirements to advance the proposal. We have hired a third-party consultant to review the proposal and subsequent costs. We expect a final decision to be made this fall.”
Bay Ferries’ proposal to Bar Harbor council has suggested the cost of upgrades at the terminal property to be covered by Bay Ferries and the province could be in the range of $3 million US.
MacDonald, meanwhile, told council on Oct. 16 that for the company to remain on track for a June 2019 entry into service, there is work that will have to get underway prior to the actual signing of the lease. The town of Bar Harbor is still in the process of purchasing the terminal facility. That process won’t be complete until Nov. 30.
MacDonald said he doesn’t foresee any difficultly of receiving consent from the town of Bar Harbor or the State of Maine for work to get underway before the lease starts. He referenced demolition and infilling work that would “enhance the ferry terminal property rather than detract from it.”
The final site plan for the property is still to come, he said.
Because Bay Ferries is a Canadian company, the lease is to be signed between the town of Bar Harbor and Atlantic Fleet Services Corp., which has served as Bay Ferries’ agent and operating contractor in the State of Maine since 1997.
Bay Ferries has until Nov. 15 to inform the city of Portland of its intention concerning its lease there.
Bay Ferries has said it wants to change ports to tap into the tourism market in Bar Harbor and to cut operational costs with a shorter sailing time. There is also concern over losing its footprint on the Portland waterfront due to development, as well as the cost of continued upgrades required in Portland by US Customs and Border Protection, which could be in the vicinity of $7-to-$8 million. Heading into this past season, Bay Ferries and the province spent $1.5 million on customs upgrades in Portland. That equipment is owned by the province.
In Bar Harbor, residents have expressed support and opposition to the ferry proposal. Prior to the vote council members said the agreement is in the best interest of the town, given the $3.5 million the town is spending to buy the terminal property.
One use the public wants to see here is a marina. But a marina is still at least five years away and the town needs revenue to cover the property purchase price, which the Bay Ferries lease will generate.
“I’m voting in favour of (the Bay Ferries proposal) because I don’t see a downside,” said council member Judie Noonan.
“We’re going to get the revenue we need to pay the bond. We’re going to be in the process of still being able to develop it,” she said about the property. “In the meantime we can have the site being active and productive instead of languishing and being an eyesore.”
Council member Erin Cough echoed these thoughts. While there are residents who have said the town has rushed into this, she disagrees.
“I don't feel this is rushing anything because we have five years to build this property out the way we want,” she said, while at the same time generating revenue from the Bay Ferries lease.
During its 2018 sailing season, The Cat carried 50,185 passengers. In 2016 it had carried 35,551 passengers. The provincial government said heading into this season it was providing an operating subsidy of $10.9 million.
Bay Ferries operated between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, N.S. from 1997 to 2009. Up until 2006 the company said it didn’t receive a subsidy. That changed when the ferry operator was asked by the province to also take on the Portland route, which increased its expenses. The ferry service ceased operating to and from Bar Harbor and Portland when the NDP government pulled the subsidy in December 2009.
In the present day, MacDonald has said it is the goal of Bay Ferries to decrease the level of the annual subsidy.