BAR HARBOR — Residents got their first chance to weigh in on options for a public marine facility at the former international ferry terminal at a meeting Monday with the consultants who recently completed draft business plans for the facility. Preserving a sense of town identity was a top concern for many, as the plan will need to balance public access and open space with uses that will generate revenue to pay for the development.
Voters will decide on June 12 whether to approve a bond for $3.5 million to purchase the ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation with no strings attached.
The business plan was based on goals decided by the ferry terminal property advisory committee last fall. The report compared the consultants’ findings for revenue and cost lines to estimates in the committee’s own report.
“I will confess that I hoped the path forward from here would be obvious. It turns out that we have more work to do,” said resident Tom Crikelair, who served on the advisory committee, in an introduction.
“Imagine that we are trying to build a railroad to a destination located on the opposite side of a mountain range,” he said. “Our consultants are the scouts and surveyors we sent out to determine if there is a viable route through those mountains. Can this be done while minimizing the need for hugely expensive tunnels and bridges? What are our choices? And how much are they likely to cost?”
An hourlong public comment session followed a run-through of the business plan from Bermello and Ajamil (B&A) consultant Michael Vanderbeek. The town spent $95,120 on the study.
All 14 of the options outlined in the 51-page draft plan would require significant local bond funding, ranging from $11.6 million to $16.2 million. Unlike the property purchase bond, though, the development funding could be a revenue bond that wouldn’t leave taxpayers on the hook.
All scenarios include a marina, but some involved cruise ship tendering and/or international ferry service. All of the options also assumed a transfer of funds from a new parking fund, a proposal for paid parking downtown also going to the voters next month. This is in addition to revenue from parking at the property itself.
Only two plans were shown to turn an annual profit with $100,000 in annual funding from the separate parking fund. Both assume 40 percent of all cruise ship passengers flowing through the property.
One further plan would turn a profit after 20 years with only 34 percent of cruise ship passengers, but it would not make money until after 2024.
If the parking fund contributed $300,000 a year to the property’s development, seven options would turn a 20-year profit with 34 percent to 40 percent of passengers. Three of those options include only cruise ship tendering, the other four have tendering and the international ferry.
Generally, the plans with the international ferry and cruise ship tendering are more profitable than ones with just tendering.
Use of the term “tendering” has generated some debate. It appears to be used in the B&A report to refer to accepting the landing of tender boats from anchored cruise ships, not necessarily providing boats and a service to transport passengers.
Hotel company Ocean Properties Ltd. currently receives tender boats from cruise ships at two private dock facilities. Some ships tender passengers using dual purpose lifeboat/tender boats that travel with the cruise ships, and others contract to use Ocean Properties boats. Last year, the company announced plans to purchase two new vessels to be used primarily as tender boats.
The plan also envisions a $7-per-passenger wharfage (landing) fee and a new $2-per-passenger infrastructure fee charged for all ship visits, whether or not they’re landing tenders at the facility. Vanderbeek said those fees are in-line with similar markets. Cruise ship fees are assessed based on the ship’s capacity, not on passenger manifests or how many passengers actually come ashore.
Resident Dennis Bracale said he hoped a new community process, like the advisory committee, would be convened to guide decisions about development.
“Buy this site, and I say to this Town Council, make a community process.” he said. “We’re all here to work hard, and we have the same goals.”
Ellsworth resident Leslie Harlow said out-of-town boaters have trouble getting gas in Bar Harbor when cruise ships are visiting. Vanderbeek said any plans for a marina likely would include standard marina amenities and fuel service.
Resident Val Peacock, who floated the idea of creating a task force to explain the timeline for development at the property earlier this year, said the town should not be so concerned with the profitability of the property. The town funds other public projects intended to improve residents’ and visitors’ experiences, ones that aren’t expected to make money.
“No one is talking about revenues from the Village Green,” she said. “[Tourists] don’t want to go down to the pier and see cruise ships, they want to see lobster boats.”
Resident Bob Collier said that if a private company bought and operated the property, the town would receive taxes from it. He questioned the cost estimates for demolition of the property and said some of the planned marina area could require dredging or even blasting.
“The state should be giving you 3.5 million to take it off their hands,” he said.
Resident Diane Vreeland said she was disappointed that town officials did not ensure grants or philanthropic funds ahead of the business plan.
“To our knowledge, no contribution to a philanthropic commitment has been made,” Vanderbeek said.
Councilor Gary Friedmann closed the meeting by saying that the council was under no pressure to decide what to do with the concepts for the property.
If voters approve funds to buy the property, the town could wait to move forward with development. Debt service, though, would have to be paid starting in 2019. The total debt service for the 20-year general obligation bond would be $4,925,275, about $246,200 per year.
At Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, Town Manager Cornell Knight said he will request an expanded estimate on the salvage value of the property if it was demolished. That salvage value was not included in the calculations delivered on Monday.
He also confirmed that the final written report would come with expanded cost estimates, including data from CES Inc. and Lambert Advisory.
Resident Stuart Brecher said at the meeting that for such an expensive development, the plan wouldn’t create many year-round jobs. He said that relying on an international ferry could be “magical thinking,” as Bay Ferries’ relies heavily on subsidies from the Canadian government.
On Tuesday, Councilor Peter St. Germain said he shared that concern. The council should be cautious about relying on Bay Ferries as a long-term player at the property, he said.
Councilor Judie Noonan said the meeting gave her hope for the development of the property and urged her colleagues and the town to take a slow approach to development.
“I was actually pretty encouraged by the whole thing,” she said. “I feel like we’ll come to a plan. It might take two years, but we don’t have to rush into it.”