CRANBERRY ISLES — The idea of having a single ferry service connecting the Cranberry Isles with both Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor for part of each year is being considered by the town’s transportation task force.
Currently, the Beal & Bunker mail boat ferries passengers, freight and mail between Islesford, Great Cranberry and Northeast Harbor year-round. The Cranberry Cove Ferry runs between Southwest Harbor and the islands from mid-May to mid-October.
Beal & Bunker owner David Bunker has said he wants to sell the business and retire, ideally sometime this fall. Town officials are exploring various options for ensuring the continuation of ferry service to Northeast Harbor this winter, as well as devising a long-term solution.
About 75 year-round and seasonal residents attended a workshop on the future of ferry service at the Islesford Neighborhood House on Saturday. Water transportation consultant Charles Norris, who is working with the transportation task force, said they are looking at the possibility of combining the Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor routes during the summer and shoulder seasons.
Norris said faster vessels could make the trip between Islesford, Great Cranberry, Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor in about the same time as the three-point trips take now.
“We currently have vessels that are operating at a cruising speed of 10 to 12 knots, which is relatively slow for a ferry service,” he said.
Ferries that run at 18 or 20 knots could make a big difference, he said.
“We want to take a look at the schedules for the different seasons and see if there are more efficient ways of providing the same or better level of service.”
Unless someone comes up with a better idea – and soon – the transportation task force seems likely to recommend that the town set up a nonprofit corporation to own the ferry service and contract with someone to operate it.
At the public workshop on Saturday, Islesford residents Henry Isaacs and Katie Fernald questioned whether the town needs to be involved.
“I, for one, believe we should let the economy take care of it if it can,” Fernald said.
She expressed concern that if the town buys the Beal & Bunker operation, taxes will go up. She noted that taxes have risen significantly in the last few years due to several costly infrastructure projects.
“We talk about making a sustainable community,” she said. “Well, a working-class person is not going to be able to afford to be here due to property taxes.”
Transportation task force member Cory Duggan explained why the panel thinks ownership of the ferry service by a nonprofit entity might be the best option.
“It would be run by a board of directors that is made up of people from our town,” he said. “What that does is give us, for lack of a better word, some ownership of ferry service that we all depend on.”
Beal & Bunker has operated the ferry since 1952. Town officials and other residents have said it is only in the last couple of years that service has deteriorated.
Joanne Thormann drew applause from those at Saturday’s workshop when she said townspeople should be grateful for Beal & Bunker’s decades of safe and reliable service.
Islesford resident Chris Hathaway said that if the town leaves it to private enterprise to provide ferry service, it is likely to be “inconvenient and more expensive.” But he said a service owned by a local nonprofit entity also is going to cost more, and he suggested that fares will have to go up “so that this doesn’t become some public boondoggle.”
Hathaway said that, compared to some other ferry services, Beal & Bunker has been “pretty cheap … the bang for our bucks has been pretty good.”
Norris, the water transportation consultant, was asked if any other ferry systems around the country are profitable.
“The only service in the country that makes money [goes to] Alcatraz,” he said, referring to the former federal prison in San Francisco Bay that is a popular tourist attraction.
When the laughter subsided, Norris said, “There are very few ferries that serve a year-round island population that don’t require some level of subsidy.”
Ron Axelrod, chairman of the transportation task force, suggested that to offset some of the cost, the town could sell the property it owns in the Southwest Harbor village of Manset. He said that property, which includes a parking lot and three warehouses, has been appraised at $1.5 million.
Axelrod said Monday that if the town decides it makes sense to combine the Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor ferry routes in the summer and shoulder seasons, then bids would be solicited from potential operators. He said Steve Pagels, whose Cranberry Cove ferry service currently runs between Southwest Harbor and the islands, would be welcome to bid.
Axelrod said it would be very difficult for any other ferry operator to serve the islands because the town probably would charge a high landing fee and restrict where and when they could dock.
The transportation task force, formed in April 2014, originally was looking at options for providing ferry service starting next summer. But with Bunker’s stated desire to stop operating Beal & Bunker this fall, the task force also is exploring ways to ensure ferry service this coming winter and spring.
Axelrod said options include having the town buy or lease a boat and contracting with a private operator, or requesting proposals from private operators who would provide their own vessels.
“We’ve talked with some operators who are interested in the short-term service,” he said.
Regardless of which option is chosen, he said, there will be some cost to the town. Given that, a special town meeting is tentatively planned for sometime in October, where voters would be asked to approve spending for a transitional service and, perhaps, to authorize creation of a nonprofit corporation to own a ferry service on a long-term basis.
Richard Beal, chairman of the Cranberry Isles board of selectmen, told residents at the workshop on Saturday that whatever course is taken, it won’t be easy or cheap.
“At the minimum, this is going to be difficult. There is going to have to be some [town] subsidy.”
Even so, Islesford resident Dan Lief said, “This has to be the most important thing we can do for this community.”
In anticipation of possibly taking over the Beal & Bunker routes, town officials plan to meet Sept. 8 with Mount Desert’s marine management committee to request a transfer of Beal & Bunker’s landing rights at the Northeast Harbor Marina to the town of Cranberry Isles.
Axelrod said the town also would need to arrange for the transfer of Beal & Bunker’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service to carry mail to the islands.
“And there are other contracts, such as with UPS and FedEx, that right now are in place with Beal & Bunker,” he said.
In considering how to structure a new ferry service, town officials have cited other operations on the Maine coast as attractive models. They are Isle au Haut Boat Services, which ferries passengers and freight between Isle au Haut and Stonington, and Chebeague Transportation Company, which runs a ferry between Chebeague Island and Yarmouth.
The Isle au Haut ferry was privately owned for decades.
“It became clear 12 or 13 years ago that we needed to find sources of funding to keep it afloat,” George Cole, president of Isle au Haut Boat Services, told the Islander last week. “We decided to form a not-for-profit corporation to operate it.”
Cole said that, in one respect, it isn’t important for an enterprise to have tax-exempt status if it doesn’t make a profit because “it wouldn’t be paying taxes anyway.”
“But the advantage is that it opens up sources of funding,” he said. “It makes possible tax-exempt donations from private individuals, and it opens up the possibility of support from various state and federal programs. Most of those programs would be open to the town of Cranberry Isles if they wanted to take that route.”
The ferry service receives an annual subsidy from the town of Isle au Haut and from Acadia National Park, which owns about half of the island.
Chebeague Transportation was founded in the 1970s as a for-profit corporation. Last summer, it was converted to a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation.
Carol Sabasteanski, general manager of Chebeague Transportation, said the nonprofit status is a recognition that it has never been in business to make money but to serve the needs of the community.
“The new structure reflects the real mission of the company,” she said. “And we thought that perhaps it would open the opportunity to apply for grants. We’re going to need another ferry before too long.”