BAR HARBOR — A cruise industry advocacy group is set to fund a study of tourism-related congestion and traffic issues in the town. The town council approved the plan in a 4-2 vote Nov. 29.
“Annual cruise passenger visits are capped by Town regulation,” the study proposal from Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says, “and the total number of cruise passengers permitted to visit Bar Harbor has remained constant for more than a decade.”
The cruise industry group contends that “Bar Harbor’s growth in tourism is being driven by land-based visitors … rather than cruise ship passenger visits.”
CLIA sought proposals for the work from qualified firms, which were due Nov. 30. The study is to be completed by June 1. No cost estimate for the study was provided.
“I’m concerned about bias,” Councilor Joe Minutolo said at the meeting. “I wonder who actually picks the consultants … I would like us to have some say in this.”
The cruise ship industry, he said, is “very powerful” and “very persuasive.”
“This seems like such a no-brainer to me,” Councilor Paul Paradis said. “I mean, somebody is offering to do this. Is it coming from the cruise lines? Yes. Is there going to be bias? Yes. Is there some information that we can probably glean from it? My guess is a resounding yes.”
The plan grew out of discussions about increases to the fees the town charges visiting cruise ships per passenger. The fee was increased 1.7 percent in the current budget year, from $4.30 to $4.37, a combination of a passenger service fee and a port development fee. Future annual increases to be tied to inflation via the Consumer Price Index, councilors said during budget discussions. Some residents have argued that increases to fees could help fund development of the ferry terminal property.
The idea of asking CLIA to fund a study on issues facing the town came from an Oct. 18 meeting attended by Town Manager Cornell Knight, Police Chief Jim Willis, Councilor Stephen Coston, Council Chair Gary Friedmann and Martha Searchfield, director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. CLIA representatives in attendance were Mike McGarry, SVP of government relations and Catharine Montgomery, director of public affairs.
Friedmann told the Islander the discussion included the town’s new parking plan, traffic congestion on West Street, and “the town’s long-term relationship with cruise ships,” he said.
“Generally, the discussion centered on ways to ensure sustainable cruise visits within the broader context of overall growth in tourism,” Montgomery said.
Following the meeting, CLIA prepared a study proposal which was sent to town councilors for approval.
“This all came out of a discussion about fees,” Coston told town councilors at their Nov. 27 meeting. “Raising fees at this point when there’s so much uncertainty may not be par for the course.”
CLIA is not opposed to a fee increase, but would want to know how the money would be used.
“We’d like your approval of the study,” Friedmann told councilors. “It would be no cost to the town. We wouldn’t be raising fees [at this time], but we’d be accepting their paying for the study.”
“They actually share many of the same concerns that we share,” Coston added. “They don’t want to see Bar Harbor struggle with congestion.”
The study will include “recommendations for improved pedestrian flows” and “consideration of all other town-own properties than can supply relief to congestion created by tourism and foster a sustainable relationship between the town of Bar Harbor and the cruise industry,” according to the proposal.
Councilor Erin Cough said she did not see the need for a study at this time, when the town has just voted on a new parking plan, and approved a new cruise ship bus policy last January.
“I think this is a big step in the right direction,” Councilor Matthew Hochman said. “This came as a direct response to our asking the cruise ship committee to look into raising fees. I share some concerns … but I think it’s a huge step and I support it.”
Friedmann, Coston, Paradis, and Hochman voted in favor of authorizing the study, and Minutolo and Cough were opposed.