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PORTLAND — The Nova Scotian government has pledged up to $21 million to help restart a ferry service connecting the province with Maine, and provincial and Canadian business leaders have expressed hope their Pine Tree State counterparts will also come forward with a financial commitment to the project.
But Portland officials say an upfront infusion of cash from this side of the border isn’t likely to happen, although the city is willing to help restore the once-popular ferry service in other ways.
The province of Nova Scotia issued a draft request for bid proposal from companies interested in operating the ferry service, which ended in 2009 when that same 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.
For the previous 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 to 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 10-12 hours.
“It would be nice to see folks in Maine looking at this as being an opportunity,” Chris Atwood, chairman of the Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce, said. “The partnership would benefit all people around the table. The provincial government is willing to spend $21 million for up to five to seven years into the project. … From our perspective, it would be nice to see the same level of recognition of the importance in Maine, but we’re happy our government recognizes the importance of tapping into the New England market.”
Christopher O’Neil, consultant for the Portland Community Chamber, said his client will need to see more proof of the ferry’s benefit to Maine’s largest city and its businesses before supporting setting aside tax dollars for the cause in Portland.
“I don’t know of any empirical data that quantifies the economic benefit of that ferry to Portland,” O’Neil, who went on a chamber visit to Nova Scotia in 2007, said. “Before we’re asked to ante up, we’d want to assess what the potential (return on investment) is.
“Would it be nice to have if it didn’t cost anything? Absolutely,” he continued. “But at what point is it worth putting money into? What’s what we’d need to figure out.”
Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and perhaps Maine’s best known economist, said he, at one point, tried to drum up support for a study of The Cat’s passengers, but couldn’t secure enough funding for such a project.
In comparison, the ferry’s economic impact on Nova Scotia, where for years it landed in the town of Yarmouth, has been more thoroughly documented. Atwood said the Yarmouth and Shelburne 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 in August.
In its 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 plummeted to 55,000 by 2005 and 26,000 by 2009.
The study attributes the drop-off 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 predicts that, a ferry service restored to at least 2002 ridership, would inject $2.9 million in annual tourism dollars in the immediate entry point of Yarmouth and $16.3 million 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.
The draft RFP issued by the Nova Scotia government seeks ferry operators who could show a viable plan for running the service, eventually, at a profit.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said that, despite hints from Nova Scotian leaders that they would like to see the city or state invest in the start-up of the ferry, he can’t match their $21 million pledge. However, Brennan said he remains optimistic Portland can be an active participant in helping renewed ferry service become a reality.
“It doesn’t look the like the city is in a position to offer subsidies in the magnitude of what Nova Scotia is talking about, but we hope to be able to negotiate. … There’s a fee structure we could negotiate with the ferry service provider,” he said. “It’s true that we don’t have any financial (commitment) we’re putting on the table, but we haven’t entered into any discussion yet to define what might be needed or not needed to make all this work.”
The mayor acknowledged that the loss of the ferry seems to have hurt Nova Scotian communities worse than it has Portland, which is experiencing a development boom of sorts and is still easily accessible for tourists from New York and Boston.
A slate of four new hotel projects would add 500 rooms to Portland’s hospitality market over the next few years, and the greater Portland area was recently found to have surpassed 50 percent of the state’s economy by some metrics.
“That might be fair assessment, but we’re also very anxious to restore ferry service,” Brennan said of the notion that the loss of the ferry has not hurt Portland as badly as it did its Nova Scotian counterparts. “To have the opportunity to have someone in New York City or Boston get on a train or bus to Portland, and then a shuttle to the waterfront to take a ferry to Nova Scotia … is a very attractive and appealing service that could be provided through Portland.”
“I don’t see this as a one-way venture,” he continued. “It certainly would have important economic consequences for us. … It’s bound to create jobs and would be important service that we could bring back to the waterfront. This is a very serious offer by Nova Scotia and also something attractive to Portland. So we’re going to be working as hard as we can to make that partnership work, and do something that’s mutually beneficial to Portland as well as Nova Scotia.”
The Cat ferry glides across Casco Bay in May 2006 on its first trip into Portland. Bay Ferries Ltd. suspended service at the end of 2009.