Private Bar Harbor firm to keep ferrying cruise ship passengers

Posted Aug. 05, 2009, at 7:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — In the face of strong opposition from Ocean Properties Ltd. and people who work with the company, the Town Council voted 4-3 Tuesday night not to resume routine cruise ship tender operations at the municipal pier.

Tenders from cruise ships, which have been estimated to inject millions of dollars into the area economy each summer, have not landed at the municipal pier since 2002, when federal port security laws went into effect in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Instead, thousands of cruise ship passengers are ferried by small boats to the pier owned by Ocean Properties.

Earlier this year, after being approached by cruise ship companies about the option of using the municipal pier, the town won approval from the Coast Guard to resume accepting such tenders there. Town staff and committee members, however, wanted approval from the elected Town Council before developing a traffic-flow system for managing the passengers, tour buses, fishermen and members of public at the municipal pier.

Thomas Walsh, the Bangor native who founded Ocean Properties, a nationwide resort lodging firm, was one of several Ocean Properties officials at the council meeting who said that it would be inappropriate for the town to compete with a local company for the cruise ship tender business.

Ocean Properties collects a per-passenger fee from the cruise lines that pick up and drop off passengers at Harbor Place, the company’s commercial tourist pier on West Street.

Referring to a 2007 plan for how Bar Harbor can manage its cruise ship visits, Walsh said the document indicates that the town should not pursue having cruise ship tenders land at its pier.

“Everything that is wrong about your pier is outlined in the study,” Walsh told the council.

Richard C. Ade, Ocean Properties’ executive vice president and chief financial officer, told the council that bringing tenders to the town pier would be a less pleasant experience for cruise ship passengers. The congestion at the pier would affect views, could inhibit use of the facilities by the public, and would drop off cruise ship passengers farther from restrooms and pay phones, he said.

“The town is limited to charging solely what your costs are,” Ade said. “Your recovery costs would be less than ours, so we don’t feel the competition would be fair to us.”

Councilor Rob Jordan acknowledged that Ocean Properties has done a “top-notch” job in funneling cruise ship passengers through Harbor Place but said that the town’s harbor committee, its fire chief and its police chief have all recommended allowing cruise ship tenders to land at the town pier.

If the town allowed tenders to dock at the municipal pier but cruise ship companies wanted to land their tenders at private facilities, they could still choose to do so, Jordan said. But the cruise ship business is too important to the town as a whole for there not to be another option other than Ocean Properties’ piers at Harbor Place and the Harborside Hotel.

“It is an insurance policy for the town if, heaven forbid, private operations would cease,” Jordan said.

Councilor Ruth Eveland said that, because the town pier is a public resource, it is up to the council to determine what uses of the pier best serve the residents of Bar Harbor. Allowing cruise ship tenders to land at the municipal pier, she said, is in the best interests of residents.

“I’m very concerned that we have such a narrow perspective on how that resource should be used,” Eveland said.

Eveland and Jordan both voted in favor of allowing routine cruise ship tender traffic at the town pier but were joined by just one other councilor, Jane Disney. Councilors Sandy McFarland, Paul Paradis, Peter St. Germain and Greg Veilleux all voted against the measure.

Paradis said that though it might make sense to have cruise ship tenders land at the town pier if no other pier were available, he was against approving it on a regular basis. He suggested that having the tenders land at Ocean Properties facilities for the past seven years has contributed to recent increased economic activity along West Street.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing this growth and I’m afraid we could be jeopardizing that,” Paradis said.

After the vote, Police Chief Nate Young asked for clarification on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant the town has applied for to acquire and install improved floats at the municipal pier. Without having regular tender traffic at the pier, he said, the town would not have the docking fee revenue that could cover the ongoing cost of maintaining the new floats.

Young said that earlier this year the council had approved getting the Coast Guard’s OK for resuming tender operations at the municipal pier. A decision by the town not to have regular cruise ship tender traffic at the pier could affect whether the town is awarded the $500,000 grant, he said.

The council decided to table further discussion about other options for tenders docking at the town pier, such as in emergencies, until the town finds out whether it will receive the grant. Young said he expects to find out about the grant by the end of September.

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