The Cat’s days operating out of Portland are likely numbered, a city official acknowledged Tuesday.
With Bay Ferries Ltd. on the verge of submitting a proposal to use Bar Harbor as the western port for its high-speed catamaran ferry service between Maine and Nova Scotia, Portland city officials are aware — but seemingly unconcerned — about the possibility of losing the service, according to the city’s economic development director.
“It is no surprise,” Portland official Greg Mitchell said Tuesday. “We are fully aware they are exploring the option of relocating to Bar Harbor.”
Bay Ferries, which operated The Cat ferry out of Portland from 2006 to 2009 and has done so again since 2016, is expected to submit a formal proposal this week to the town of Bar Harbor for leasing a defunct ferry terminal site on Route 3 where ferry service to Canada operated from 1956 through 2009.
Cornell Knight, Bar Harbor’s town manager, has said that in discussions with the town, the Canadian company has informally floated the idea of signing a 5-year lease for the property and spending $3.5 million on improvements to its ferry docking facility. The Town Council is expected to review the company’s proposal, if it arrives on time, at its next meeting Tuesday, July 17.
Mark MacDonald, CEO of Bay Ferries, declined Monday to comment on the company’s plans, saying it would not be appropriate to do so until after Bar Harbor receives its proposal.
Knight said Tuesday that he expects to receive the proposal by this Thursday. He said consistent challenges Bay Ferries has faced in operating out of Portland has renewed the company’s interest in using the local terminal on Frenchman Bay.
“It’s only become a reality in the past year or so,” he said of The Cat’s expected return to Bar Harbor.
Mitchell said the demand for available real estate along Portland’s waterfront and nearby streets is fairly high, and that the operation of the vehicle ferry at the city-owned Ocean Gateway terminal has presented the city with logistical challenges.
The ferry arrives in the middle of the day, often when large cruise ships are berthed at the same facility, which leads to congestion at the site, he said. Vehicles waiting to get on the ferry have to queue up outside the terminal. Federal customs officials have to check paperwork for each passenger as vehicles arriving from Canada slowly drive off the ferry, and often the terminal itself is used for other events, such as banquets or weddings.
“That creates complications in out port,” Mitchell said of the ferry service. “We have a very active economy [along the waterfront]. It’s very diversified.”
Cruise ship visits to Portland are increasing, he said, but the infrastructure needed at the terminal to accommodate cruise ship passengers — whether or not they are arriving from a foreign port — takes up less space than the ferry. And there’s a lot of interest among developers in the limited real estate near the terminal, which the city welcomes, he added.
“It’s all good,” Mitchell said.
Just last month, Bar Harbor voters approved a deal to purchase the defunct ferry terminal from the state for $3.5 million. The state had acquired the property from Marine Atlantic, a government corporation in Canada, which owned it for decades — first operating the monohull Bluenose ferry from the site from 1956 to 1996, and then leasing it to Bay Ferries from 1997 through 2009. The site has been idle for the past nine years.
After fiercely debating for months whether the defunct terminal should be converted into a cruise ship berth, the purchase plan approved by voters in June calls for redeveloping the site as a multiuse marina, which would allow for a resumption of the international ferry service. Knight has said that if Bay Ferries were to lease the site, it would have to spend money to upgrade dolphins — large wooden structures in the water — used to hold the ferry in place as it is docked, and the ramp vehicles would use to get on and off the ferry.
Since 2009, no ferries have been operating between Bar Harbor and Canada after a loss of operating subsidies from the Nova Scotia provincial government prompted Bay Ferries to end the service between the two countries. The company had offered service from both Bar Harbor and Portland after a competing ferry service in Portland went under in 2006.
After Nova Scotia promised new subsidies, ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, was revived in 2014, but it has not been smooth sailing. By late the following summer, the new ferry operator fell well short of projected passenger goals and failed to keep its finances afloat, resulting that fall in a court-ordered seizure of the Nova Star, the high-end vessel serving the ferry run.
The seizure occurred within a few days of the Nova Scotia government announcing it had selected Bay Ferries to resume the service between Portland and the province for the 2016 season. The firm chartered a newer, larger Cat ferry from the U.S. Navy and signed a 10-year, multi-million dollar deal to operate seasonal service across the gulf.
But difficulties in Portland have remained. The Cat also fell short of passenger goals in 2016, and service suffered from technical problems in 2017. Then late last year, Bay Ferries sued the local pilots’ association and the city’s board of harbor commissioners over a sharp increase in piloting fees in and out of the harbor. Also ferry service from Portland this summer was threatened by the cost of upgrades to the city’s Ocean Gateway terminal, which U.S. Customs and Border Patrol had said were necessary to meet federal standards.
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