PORTLAND, Maine — Nova Scotia officials on Tuesday announced that a deal has been signed with a Maine company to revive ferry service from the Maritime province to Portland, reaching another important milestone as leaders on both sides of the border work toward a May start date.
The ship that will make the crossing still must be outfitted with a casino and theater before it is put into service connecting the two countries, and the terminal in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, must be upgraded to receive the vessel as well. Details of the signed deal and remaining challenges were delivered to reporters Tuesday in a news conference with Nova Scotia and ferry service officials.
“Nova Scotia and Maine have a unique opportunity to connect its citizens and economies. With this critical link restored, we can build on the ferry service as an economic driver and continue to build partnerships between the two regions,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement Tuesday.
In September, representatives of Eliot-based ferry operator Quest Navigation and provincial officials announced an agreement on terms by which Quest and its Singapore-based shipbuilding partner ST Marine would bring back the ferry service. But the celebratory tone of that announcement may have been premature, as it took more than two months for the parties to reach accord on the finer details of the document.
Michel Samson, appointed last month as Nova Scotia’s new minister of economic and rural development and tourism, told reporters Tuesday afternoon the final hang-ups on completion of the deal were over financial transparency.
The final pact includes a reporting and auditing requirement that allows provincial leaders more oversight of the ferry service’s financial performance, Samson said.
“This is an important milestone that a lot of people have been waiting for,” Samson said.
Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood called Tuesday “a red-letter day” because of the deal announcement.
Previously announced terms of the deal include $21 million in provincial investments in the service — $10.5 million for start-up costs, followed by $1.5 million annually over seven years for marketing — and an agreed-upon May 1-Oct. 31 schedule of crossings.
For Portland travelers, that itinerary will feature regular 8 p.m. departures from Maine’s largest city and arrivals in the port town of Yarmouth at 7 the next morning. Return trips will leave Yarmouth at 9 a.m. and reach Portland at 5 p.m.
STM Quest additionally committed to creating Nova Scotian jobs and purchasing products and services from Nova Scotian businesses.
The ferry, which will be christened the Nova Star, is a 528-foot-long vessel with the capacity to carry 1,250 passengers and 300 vehicles, and, according to Steve Durrell of STM Quest on Tuesday, will feature casino and theater amenities.
Maine law prohibiting new casinos without public approval does not extend into international waters, where the ferry will spend much of its time along the commute.
“We look forward to providing a world-class ferry service for generations to come,” Durrell said Tuesday.
Previous ferry service between the two locations ended in 2009 when the Nova Scotia government opted to cut off its annual subsidies for the high-speed CAT ferry, which had been running the route at a loss for three years at that point.
For the prior 35 years, ferry service connecting Portland and Nova Scotia was provided by slower vessels such as the Prince of Fundy, Bolero, Caribe, Marine Evangeline and, more recently, the Scotia Prince. Compared with the CAT, a catamaran vessel which made the commute in just more than five hours, the Scotia Prince was a monohull cruise ship which made the trip in 10 to 12 hours.
While no recent data are available on the economic impact of ferry service to Portland, the ferry’s effect on Nova Scotia has been more thoroughly documented. The Yarmouth and Shelburne (Nova Scotia) Chambers of Commerce issued a report on the ferry service’s economic benefits when The CAT runs were discontinued in 2009, while a provincial task force reviewed the subject more recently and put out a 71-page paper on it last August.
In the service’s most recent heyday, in 2002, the provincial report found that 95,000 people made their way to Nova Scotia using the Maine ferries, but that number dropped to 55,000 by 2005 and 26,000 by 2009.
The study attributes the free fall in ridership to a number of factors, including the rise in fuel costs, diminished capacity with the departure of the larger Scotia Prince, the economic recession and the appreciation of the Canadian dollar.
That same report predicted that a ferry service restored to 2002 ridership would inject $2.9 million in annual tourism dollars in the immediate entry point of Yarmouth and $16.3 million each year across the larger province of Nova Scotia.
A healthy ferry service would create 355 jobs, worth $8 million in annual income, provincewide as well, the study predicted.