May 23, 2018
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Bar Harbor, Maine Port Authority to pay for second study of idle ferry terminal

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Now on to Phase Two.

Having recently completed a preliminary study of the challenges and opportunities involved with redeveloping an idle ferry terminal on Route 3, the town has decided to continue examining the matter. Of particular interest to local and state officials is how the property could be used to support the town’s increasing seasonal cruise ship business.

On Tuesday, the Bar Harbor Town Council voted unanimously to partner with the Maine Port Authority on the second phase of a feasibility study on the best reuse of the 4.5-acre waterfront property. The anticipated $171,000 cost of Phase Two is expected to be divided evenly between the town and Maine Port Authority.

According to Town Manager Dana Reed, the second phase of the study is expected to come up with specific recommendations for how to renovate the property and how to fund its future operations.

Bermello Ajamil, a Miami-based consulting firm that completed the first phase of the study, is expected to do the second phase as well. The company previously developed a cruise ship industry destination management plan for Bar Harbor in the winter of 2006-2007.

For decades, the Route 3 property functioned as a terminal for a passenger and vehicle ferry that operated between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. That service ended in December 2009 when Bay Ferries Ltd. decided to discontinue operation of The Cat, a high-speed ferry that operated between Bar Harbor, Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. High operating costs and declining ridership were blamed for cancellation of the service.

Marine Atlantic, a corporation owned by the Canadian government, owns the property but has expressed an interest in selling it. For local property tax purposes, the town has assessed the value of the property at $6.6 million.

According to local officials, Marine Atlantic is aware of possible interest from the state or town in acquiring the facility and is willing to wait until that decision is made before it puts the property up for sale.

The terminal has played an important part in Bar Harbor’s seasonal tourist economy, officials have said, and they want to preserve the public marine use of the property.

“We need to preserve that waterfront access,” Reed said Thursday.

Reed added that town officials have not made up their minds about what the best future use of the property might be. Commercial development on the parcel’s Route 3 road frontage and maintaining ferry service access are among other ideas floated for the property.

The first phase of the study, completed in December, suggested that building a 1,500-foot-long pier that could accommodate one or two large cruise ships could make it economically viable to continue using the property as a public marine terminal. Operating it solely as a ferry terminal, it concluded, was not financially feasible.

In the first phase of the study, Bermello Ajamil indicated that increasing the town’s cruise ship traffic, rather than moving cruise ship tender docking services away from the downtown waterfront, would be preferable so that cruise ship passengers would continue to visit and spend money in the downtown district.

But the consultant added that the trend in the industry is toward using berthing piers instead of tenders to move passengers between the ships and shore. 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 firm has indicated.

The town’s cruise ship business has increased steadily over the past couple of decades. Bar Harbor had 106 cruise ship visits last year, one less than the record of 107 set in 2010. In 1990, it had only 22 visits.

The ferry terminal facilities, especially the existing pier, are in need of repair, however. The consultant estimated that to make all the needed repairs and maintenance measures would cost $6.2 million while the cost for adding a cruise ship pier likely would be an additional $16.7 million.

Reed said Thursday that officials believe cruise ship fees paid to the town could be used to pay for the cost of acquiring the ferry property, repairing the existing infrastructure and upgrading it for use by cruise ships.

“The challenge is how to pay for [its operations],” Reed said.

Reed said that the second phase likely will take eight weeks to complete but that the town has to sign a contract with the consulting firm before Phase Two work can begin. A possible third phase of the study would include an execution plan for the recommendations of the study’s second phase.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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