BAR HARBOR — The former ferry terminal property would best serve the interests of the town if it were developed as a multi-use maritime facility rather than a berthing pier, an appointed town committee decided this week.
The Town Council is set to decide Nov. 21 whether to purchase the property from the state and under what terms.
The recommendation calls for purchasing the property at the no-strings-attached purchase price of $3.5 million to “accommodate a multi-use marine facility with optional tender boat landings from cruise ships.”
More than 100 residents of Bar Harbor attended the public comment portion of the final ferry terminal advisory committee (FTAC) meeting on Tuesday to voice their opinions about uses of the property.
The meeting began with a brief report from the committees and an explanation of the matrix decision-making tool by consultant Elizabeth Swain.
“The committees did a shocking amount of work in two months,” Swain said.
A number of citizens were cautious about the $2.5 million price tag that would require the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to approve a “marine use” for the facility. Resident Gail Conrad said that “marine use facility” has not been clearly defined by the MDOT, complicating that decision for the town.
For the town to qualify for the lower price, a business plan would have to be ready for Nov. 30, which town officials said was nearly impossible.
The lion’s share of comments supported the no-strings-attached $3.5 million dollar purchase option. This would avoid a potential clawback of the property if the town’s development plan does not include “marine use” in the state’s estimation.
“It’s a conservative option,” resident Stuart Brecher said. “While we are spending more money, [the other option] could have fatal flaws.”
The most desirable plan according to the matrix, a multi-use marina with tendering, was found “likely” to break even when run through cost studies, according to FTAC member Tom Crikelair.
The cost plan was based on the $2.5 million figure. Crikelair said it was not clear how the $3.5 million purchase option would affect the fiscal viability of the multi-use facility.
FTAC Chair Ruth Eveland said that support for the more expensive purchase option was surprising, citing her previous experience as a town councilor.
“Usually the people of Bar Harbor like to do things for least amount of money,” Eveland said.
Resident Michael Blythe asked how transportation to and from the downtown area would be handled. He said the number of cruise ship passengers requiring transport during the peak season would require stoplights on Eden Street, the main artery into downtown Bar Harbor.
Resident Bo Greene expressed concern over the timing of Bay Ferries Limited’s announcement of its interest in resuming international ferry service.
The company announced that interest on Oct. 26, giving the committee only two weeks to integrate the new information.
“I wanted to make sure this process was pure,” Greene said. “I’m worried that the Town Council knew about Bay Ferries long before they told anyone about it.”
Town Councilor Judie Noonan spoke passionately in response to Greene’s remarks, saying that the council did not have “secret” or “private” meetings with Bay Ferries.
“It saddens me that there are conspiracy theories and people that don’t trust us,” Noonan said. “We’re part of you and not some crazy group that came down from outer space.”
Greene asked Town Manager Cornell Knight if he had spoken to Bay Ferries. He said that he had conversations with the company, but it was not appropriate to speak publicly about them.
“[Bay Ferries] said they could not make it public until the day they sent Ruth the letter,” Knight said.
Steve Burns, a lobsterman, said that he loses hundreds of dollars in gear due to cruise ships. He thinks the tendering operations are dangerous.
“Tendering is not something you want to be doing, [and] you want to concentrate on a pier and getting people into town,” Burns said. “If we continue to operate the way we are, someone will get hurt.”
Lilea Simis said that she didn’t want the advisory process to be dictated by the cruise ships. She said that the ships will continue to operate as they normally do, and the town should look to develop the property to meet the town’s needs.
“Cruise ships come here, we’re not trying to say don’t come here,” Simis said. “But, we need to develop our town the way we want and offer them what we can offer them.”
After a short break, the FTAC held their final meeting to finalize their recommendation, which will be delivered to the Bar Harbor Town Council on Nov. 21.
“The clawback is the big thing that’s bothering people,” FTAC member Joe Minutolo said. “If we’re going to keep this a town entity, this gives us flexibility.”
Crikelair added that the Town Council should work “actively with the Maine Department of Transportation” (MDOT) to reduce the price. Eveland said that she believes that the MDOT would be open to that.
“They surely want this to succeed, too,” Eveland said. “I think the fact that we’re coming up with a plan that has a decent chance of success will open that door for them.”
Ahead of the final recommendation, Knight offered updates on Bay Ferries’ ongoing interest. He recently received an email from Bay Ferries’ CEO Mark McDonald that confirmed the company’s “serious consideration” of resuming service, he said.
The ferry could be a steady source of revenue, he argued. “It’s good to have the international connection and a revenue source committed to the long term,” Knight said.
Crikelair was cautious about assuming that the international ferry service would be an overwhelming success, saying there was a reason that it was stopped in 2009.
“It’s a risky business,” Crikelair said. “There’s no guarantee that the service would last more than a year or two.”
Knight also said he talked to Jon Nass, deputy commissioner of the MDOT, about the second amendment to the purchase option, which ironed out a loophole that could leave the town without the ability to recoup any money used to develop the property.
The amendment has been signed by Bar Harbor officials but is still under legal review by the MDOT. Knight expected the amendment to be completed before the Nov. 21 meeting.
Knight also said that Nass recommended the $3.5 million purchase option because the clawback clause could complicate plans for the property.
The committee noted that their recommendations do not envision growth in the number of cruise ship passengers. Their projections were based on the 2017 data and might be changed significantly with growth.
“Many people who came before our committee voiced their concern about significantly increasing cruise ship [passenger caps,]” Eveland said.
The international ferry service was not a top priority in the final recommendation.
“This is the plan we are proposed, and if Bay Ferries fits, then so be it,” Minutolo said.
The final text of the recommendation says “the committee prioritizes marine uses including a transportation hub at the property over Bay Ferries.” The recommendation also asks the Town Council to “move toward consolidating cruise buses, taxis, etc. at the ferry terminal as part of implementation of the multi-use marine and transportation facility.”
The recommendation and a more detailed report will be delivered to town councilors as a notebook before the Nov. 21 Town Council meeting.
It will then be up to councilors to decide whether to approve the purchase at all, and if so, at the $2.5 million or $3.5 million level.
A bond issue for the purchase price would have to be approved by Bar Harbor residents at the 2018 town meeting.