Bond proposed to help state acquire Bar Harbor ferry terminal from Canada

The 1,132-foot Queen Mary 2 sits at anchor near Bar Harbor in 2004 while the 320-foot ferry the Cat approaches the 610-foot cruise ship Silver Whisper (right).
Kevin Bennett
The 1,132-foot Queen Mary 2 sits at anchor near Bar Harbor in 2004 while the 320-foot ferry the Cat approaches the 610-foot cruise ship Silver Whisper (right).
Posted Feb. 25, 2014, at 11:50 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 25, 2014, at 5:07 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — State and local officials are hoping the Legislature will endorse a bond issue that would help fund the purchase of a former Nova Scotia ferry terminal from the Canadian government.

Several Hancock County legislators have teamed up to co-sponsor a bill, LD 1767, that with voter approval would authorize a bond to raise $3 million to buy the property that officials say could be converted into a cruise ship terminal.

The 4.5-acre site has been idle since declining ridership led to the cancellation of The Cat ferry service between Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, in the fall of 2009. Bar Harbor had been host to ferry service to and from Nova Scotia — first by the monohull Bluenose ferry and then, beginning in 1998, by the catamaran vessel — for 53 years.

There are plans to restore ferry service across the Gulf of Maine this spring, when the Nova Star is scheduled to begin service between Portland and Nova Scotia, but Bar Harbor will not be part of the planned route. A Canadian study and resulting report in 2012 indicated that Bar Harbor was not well-suited to host year-round terminal operations for an international ferry service.

As ferry ridership to and from Bar Harbor decreased, the local cruise ship business increased significantly, from 22 cruise ship visits in 1990 to 126 visits this past year. All large ships that visit Bar Harbor anchor in Frenchman Bay and bring passengers to and from shore using cruise ship tenders that dock downtown at a pier owned by the resort lodging firm Ocean Properties, Ltd.

A 2011 study commissioned by the town of Bar Harbor, the local Chamber of Commerce and Maine Port Authority indicated that the defunct ferry terminal could be converted into a cruise ship berth for one or two large ships. The cost of upgrading the facility to a cruise ship berth — separate from the price of acquiring the property — would be around $16 million, the study indicated.

John Henshaw, executive director of Maine Port Authority, said Tuesday that although the state agency is not taking a position on the bill, it would like to see the property preserved as a marine terminal.

“It’s an irreplaceable asset,” Henshaw said. “There isn’t waterfront property waiting around to be used for these purposes.”

He added he is not sure if the proposed $3 million bond would cover all the costs of acquiring the property. State and local officials have not negotiated with the Canadian government about what the purchase price might be, he said.

The cruise ship industry, Henshaw added, has an economic impact that reaches beyond Bar Harbor, Portland and other coastal towns where ships stop. The industry contributed $46 million in direct spending to the state economy in 2012, he said.

State Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth, who submitted the bill, said Tuesday that acquiring the site would provide more flexibility in how local cruise ship traffic is managed. Development of the site as a cruise ship berth could affect how passengers get to and from the downtown business district, he said, but also could allow for more ship visits and make it easier for ships to acquire Maine products such as lobster or blueberries.

“It literally brings boatloads of money to Maine,” Langley said of the industry.

He added that Bar Harbor’s tourist season used to end around Labor Day, but with the growth of the fall cruise ship season, it now lasts all the way through October.

If the state acquires the site, any expense in redeveloping and operating it could be paid for with user fees, rather with additional taxpayer dollars, Langley said.

“To me, that seems [to be] a tremendous return on investment for the taxpayer,” the legislator said.

Langley said a public hearing on the bill, which has been referred to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, has not yet been scheduled.

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