BAR HARBOR — The CEO of the private company proposing to bring back Bar Harbor-Nova Scotia ferry service faced a battery of questions Tuesday evening from town councilors and residents.
Some of those questions were about the company’s history in Bar Harbor and current activities in Portland. Others were about ensuring public waterfront access and community input in the deliberations.
After extensive discussion, the council voted unanimously to authorize Council Chair Gary Friedmann, Town Manager Cornell Knight and a town attorney as needed to negotiate with the company.
Bay Ferries, Ltd. CEO Mark MacDonald and Atlantic Fleet Services Corp. owner Annette Higgins, who lives inBar Harbor, developed the proposal and presented it to the council. Bay Ferries contracts with Atlantic Fleet Services to manage shoreside operations for its Maine ferry service.
Bay Ferries is proposing a five-year lease of a portion of the ferry terminal property which the town recently voted to purchase from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT). That property, owned by Canadian crown corporation Marine Atlantic until it was purchased by MDOT in 2017, was the home of the international ferry here for decades until the service ended in 2010.
Residents worry that if the service starts again, it could end again just as abruptly.
“What are you intending to do in five years?” resident James O’Connell asked. “Where are you going to go?”
The company hopes to operate here longer than that, MacDonald said, but wanted to offer an initial lease term that would be acceptable to the town.
Bay Ferries operated the Bar Harbor-Nova Scotia Ferry between 1997 and 2010. The company is currently under a 10-year operating agreement with the province of Nova Scotia to provide ferry service to Maine.
Bay Ferries proposes to begin service in June of 2019. That would mean ending their current ferry operations in Portland, where the company’s lease agreements are year-by-year. Bay Ferries enjoys a good relationship with Portland, the proposal says, but worries are increasing about land availability and restrictions there.
Bay Ferries has had to cancel ferry runs this year, Higgins said, on days when the ferry’s berth was occupied by a cruise ship.
The trip between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, is also significantly shorter than the Portland route, requiring less fuel and less time.
The Town Council is expected to decide Oct. 2 whether to approve a lease agreement with Bay Ferries. During the “due diligence” period, both parties will have operational, budget and regulatory questions to be answer.
The ferry company has engaged a local architect and engineering firm to provide plans and cost estimates for work needed to make the existing pier and terminal building safe, usable and acceptable to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Some residents worry about reports that Customs and Border Protection has required expensive new facilities in Portland. The town shouldn’t be on the hook for such costs, they argue.
“If the city of Portland can’t afford it, how can a town of 5,000 afford it?” resident Donna Karlson asked.
“Our proposal is not that the town pay for this,” MacDonald said. Once final costs estimates are in hand, he said, “we would either proceed and absorb those costs or make the decision not to proceed.”
Steve Pagels, owner of Downeast Windjammer Cruises, has also expressed interest in operating a ferry between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia.
His company operates the schooner Margaret Todd in Bar Harbor, and several local ferries including one of the two Bar Harbor-Winter Harbor ferries. He corresponded with the town’s consultants during their work on the business plan.
“Tonight is Bay Ferries’ night, so I’m not going to steal their thunder,” Pagels told the council. “We didn’t realize you were accepting proposals. You have a very viable opportunity that’s been put before you. I’d like the opportunity to do the same.”
Separate from the Bay Ferries proposal, the council also acted to move forward with its overall planning for use of the ferry terminal property.
The town undertook an extensive community process to consider uses of the property before the vote to purchase it. Last fall a 40-person Ferry Terminal Property Advisory Committee studied and weighed possible uses. The committee’s report was forwarded to consultants Bermello, Ajamil and Partners for a business plan.
That plan was presented in May ahead of the June town meeting vote, and a steering committee was charged with recommending next steps. That committee includes Town Manager Cornell Knight, Harbormaster Charlie Phippen, town Finance Director Stan Harmon, Chamber of Commerce Director Martha Searchfield and Tom Crikelair, who co-chaired the advisory committee.
Although the preliminary business plans recommended accepting cruise ship passengers at the ferry terminal property as a good source of revenue, the steering committee has not yet pursued it.
Councilors asked Knight to begin work on an ordinance change adding more members to the town’s Harbor Committee. That committee would recommend plans for future public waterfront uses of the property.
“There’s no reason to create yet another committee in a town where we have half a million of them,” councilor Paul Paradis said.