Canadian ferry company Bay Ferries Ltd. handed out knit hats at the recent Bar Harbor Winter Beer Fest announcing the planned return of The CAT high speed car ferry for a Bar Harbor to Yarmouth run beginning this summer. “The CAT came back,” the hats proclaim.
The company plans to lease a portion of the former international ferry terminal property for five years. That property, owned by Canadian crown corporation Marine Atlantic until it was purchased by the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) in 2017, was the home of the international ferry here for decades until the service ended in 2010. The town voted in June to purchase the property from MDOT. At last word, that sale had not closed yet, but a closing was expected soon. The property transfer is one of several pieces that must fall into place before the lease can be signed.
Not too long after the last iteration of the ferry service ended in 2010, Bar Harbor began discussing and weighing options for the future of the ferry terminal property. Meetings and negotiations with Maine state government, the Nova Scotia provincial government and even federal officials in both countries continued for years.
Plan A was for the Maine Port Authority, an arm of the Maine Department of Transportation, to acquire the property for maritime transportation use, possibly a cruise ship terminal. The state backed out of that plan in 2016, citing opposition in the town to zoning changes and to the possible terminal.
“We don’t go into unwelcome towns with this kind of money,” one official said.
But MDOT was still willing to serve as a conduit if the town of Bar Harbor wanted to purchase the property. So, in the summer 2017, the property was transferred from Marine Atlantic to the state. For the rest of that year, the town and MDOT negotiated terms of the sale of the property to the town. A large citizen advisory committee spent the fall in intensive meetings about potential uses and recommended a multi-use marina. The town voted to approve the purchase in 2018.
The five-year lease with Bay Ferries is a way to begin paying debt service and planning for needed improvements while still allowing an expanded harbor committee to move forward with plans for a marina and other public use of the property.
There are, and will continue to be, plenty of opportunities for public participation in creating a public facility the whole town can be proud of. But the debate is over: an international ferry will be one of the uses of the property, at least for a few years. Residents and officials must now turn their energy to helping ensure the ferry operations happen in the best way for the town.