© TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The Yarmouth ferry terminal.
YARMOUTH – Bay Ferries has yet to secure a vessel for ferry service running between Yarmouth and Portland for the 2016 season but the province’s minister of transportation says he isn’t concerned.
When the province announced at the end of October that Bay Ferries was the preferred candidate to operate the ferry service this season and beyond, it said the company had 45 days to secure a vessel.
“Technically, based on the announcement of the negotiations with Bay Ferries, the 45 days has lapsed. That is certainly not a concern for us,” Geoff MacLellan said in an interview late Monday with the Yarmouth Vanguard.
“Given the fact that Bay Ferries is out there, they’re in the market, they’re in daily contact with brokers internationally and they’ve obviously committed to this service for 2016 and beyond, we’re not concerned that the 45-day window has closed,” MacLellan said.
“Mark MacDonald (president and CEO) and Bay Ferries are working to get this right and we’re going to give them every opportunity,” added MacLellan. “There’s no concern or fears coming from Bay Ferries with respect to the timeline for 2016, so if they’re confident, we’re confident.
“They want a vessel that is viable, that fits with the potential traffic that could be realized from Nova Scotia to Maine. Obviously they want to make sure they have costs under control,” he added. “So having that right vessel, having the perfect fit, is really what they’re searching for.”
MacLellan says he hopes the company will have word on a vessel soon.
Not everyone feels "soon" is good enough. Progressive Conservative MLA for Argyle-Barrington Chris d'Entremont is calling on the McNeil Liberals to release more updated information on the ferry now.
"The Liberals are putting the 2016 sailing season in serious jeopardy and it's time to come clean with Nova Scotians," said d'Entremont. "What is happening with the Yarmouth ferry? Nova Scotians deserve a plan now."
He said the government indicated there was a 45-day deadline and that deadline has since passed. D'Entremont said without concrete information on the service, people have a right to be concerned.
"It’s the start of the new year and the Liberals still have not told Nova Scotians the plan for the ferry service this year or for future years," he said. “We deserve a long-term plan for that minimizes the cost to taxpayers and helps provide stability for people who work in the tourism industry.
Until it’s known what vessel will be used for the ferry run, MacLellan said contract negotiations with the company can’t be finalized.
“When we get into the negotiations on the subsidy, obviously the selection of the vessel will play a role in that,” he said.
But what about marketing? How can you market a service set to begin in six months when you don't yet have a vessel? It's a question members of the public are asking.
MacLellan said he has discussed marketing with Bay Ferries.
“I want to be sure that there is no concern on the Bay Ferries side that we are running out of time, so to speak, and there isn’t that indication from Bay Ferries at this point,” he said.
MacLellan said the company has been diligent in making contacts with officials and the tourism sector in Nova Scotia and Maine to make sure they know that Bay Ferries is invested in this service and that the service will be available.
While the minister acknowledges they may miss the boat on some print publications heading into the season, he said there are many avenues to promote the service, which also includes social media and online.
MacLellan adds you won’t see expectations of 100,000 or 80,000 passengers coming and going set for this year as Nova Star Cruises had done in its two years of operating the service.
“One of the takeaways now from those years is we understand what the relative baseline could be, in the high 50,000 range. We don’t think it’s reasonable to raise expectations past that point now because that’s all we have to go on,” he said. “If we do have an increase of 10 or 15 per cent, well that’s good news and we’ll build on that the following year, but it’s been relative consistency of the ridership.
If it goes above that, that’s fantastic, if it goes below that then that’s cause for concern.
“When people look at the 30-plus million dollars spent over two years, its obviously a heavy price,” he said. “But for me it’s been two years or rebuilding the market.”
The province spent $41.5 million on the ferry service over two years.
Two days after the province announced Nova Star Cruises would not be operating the service again, a federal court judge in Maine had ordered that the Nova Star vessel be held in Portland harbour under arrest amid complaints from many U.S. service providers had not been paid for their services. The Singapore owner of the vessel, ST Marine, reportedly reached settlements with many of those companies. After its Singapore builder and owner posted a bond, the ship was released in early December and left Portland – it’s future unknown.
Back in Nova Scotia, MacLellan said the province has identified tourism as a growth sector it wants to see doubled in the coming years and that ferry service factors into this. He said the tourism sector was negatively impacted in the years a ferry did not operate and it has experienced economic benefits since the service has been restored.
“We’ll have a responsibility and an obligation to design a subsidy that works for the taxpayers of Nova Scotia and that keeps this run viable for 2016 and in future years,” he said, saying the experience and reputation of Bay Ferries has the province feeling good moving forward.
“I’ve had such a restored confidence in dealing with Mark MacDonald and the Bay Ferries team that I believe that what they come forward with prior to sailing season in 2016 will be the best possible business model mix for this run,” MacLellan said.
Bay Ferries operated ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine from 1997 to 2009. It operates ferry runs between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and PEI.