MDI cruise ship berth financially viable, according to study

Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 12:42 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 29, 2011, at 5:45 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — If a local unused international ferry terminal is to have an economically viable future, it should be adapted to allow cruise ships to tie up to a berth connected to shore, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, conducted by Miami-based development and consulting firm Bermello Ajamil, was commissioned by the town of Bar Harbor, the local Chamber of Commerce and Maine Port Authority to help develop a plan for maintaining the ferry terminal’s marine capabilities. The consultant developed a cruise ship industry destination management plan for Bar Harbor in the winter of 2006-2007.

The study is referred to in the document as “Phase 1” of what could end up being a more thorough evaluation of the terminal property.

The ferry terminal, located on Route 3 between hotel properties owned by rival hoteliers Thomas Walsh and David Witham, has been idle for two years, since The Cat canceled its service between Bar Harbor, Portland, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in December 2009. The terminal had been used for ferry service between Maine and Canada, first by monohull ferries and since 1998 by faster catamaran vessels, for more than 50 years.

The cancellation of the ferry service has been attributed to decreasing ridership, increased fuel costs and a loss of millions of dollars in subsidies from the Canadian and Nova Scotian governments. The 320-foot Cat ferry is no longer in Maine and is believed to have been sold to a firm in China.

Since the cancellation of the ferry service, local and state officials have been concerned about the future of the 4.5-acre waterfront property, which is owned by Canadian firm Marine Atlantic. The Canadian company, which is owned by the Canadian government, has indicated that it would like to sell the property, which for local tax purposes has an official assessed value of $6.6 million.

Local municipal and tourism business officials have said the property should be maintained for public marine use.

According to the study, simply trying to continue operating the site as a ferry terminal is “not a viable financial use.” Adapting it to accommodate one or two cruise ships at a berth that, according to a diagram in the study report, could stick out approximately 1,500 feet from shore likely would enable the property to maintain its marine use and generate adequate revenue at the same time. Ferry access could be maintained with the addition of a cruise ship berth, the consultant wrote.

Though the facility is being “minimally maintained” by Marine Atlantic, there are some deferred maintenance issues that would have to be fixed just to maintain the site as it is, according to the study. As state officials have said, the deteriorating pier is in need of repairs which represent a “significant cost,” the document indicates. Other features such as pavement on the lot, the terminal building and floating docks are in better shape but are in need of routine maintenance.

The consulting firm estimated that to make all the needed repairs and maintenance measures would cost $6.2 million.

The cost just for building a new pier that would include a docking berth for one or two cruise ships is estimated to be $16.7 million, the study indicates.

The study indicates that growing the town’s cruise ship business, rather than moving cruise ship traffic away from the town pier at the downtown waterfront, would be the preferred method of generating cruise ship traffic at the terminal, in order not to shift existing cruise ship business away from the downtown district.

The trend in the cruise ship industry is toward using berthing piers instead of tenders to move passengers between the ships and shore, according to the study. The increasing size of cruise ships makes tender operations more difficult and creates longer waits for passengers looking to disembark or board the ships, the study indicates.

According to Charlie Phippen, the town’s harbor master, foul weather in Frenchman Bay sometimes prevents cruise ships from bringing their passengers to shore on tenders. But he said weather and which way the wind was blowing through the bay still could be factors that might prevent ships from docking at a berth.

“That would depend on the specifications of the [cruise ship] pier,” Phippen said Thursday. “There’s so many variables.”

The study suggests that commercial development along the parcel’s road frontage might be compatible with maintaining ferry capabilities and adding a cruise ship berth. It also indicates that the Maine Port Authority is the entity best suited for acquiring the property and managing its many possible uses.

Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment on specifics in the study and directed questions about it to Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw. Fogg did say he thought Bermello Ajamil did a “very thorough” job that explored all appropriate possibilities.

“We’re excited about keeping the facility a marine facility,” Fogg said.

Whether officials will solicit further evaluation of the property was not clear Thursday afternoon. Henshaw and Dana Reed, town manager for Bar Harbor, did not return separate calls placed Thursday afternoon seeking comment about the study.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @ billtrotter.

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