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July 20, 2018

Bar Harbor agrees to negotiate with Bay Ferries to renew CAT ferry service

Courtesy / Bay Ferries Ltd.
Courtesy / Bay Ferries Ltd.
The high-speed CAT ferry that once shuttled daily between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, could be plying that route again next summer, under a proposal being negotiated between Bay Ferries Ltd. and the town of Bar Harbor.

After meeting with Bay Ferries Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Mark MacDonald and Atlantic Fleet Services Corp. owner Annette Higgins on July 17, the Bar Harbor Town Council voted to negotiate with Bay Ferries regarding its proposal to reinstitute ferry service between Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia.

The council appointed Town Manager Cornell Knight, Council Chairman Gary Friedmann and a town attorney "as needed" as its negotiating team.

Bay Ferries' proposal is for a $1 million, five-year lease of a town-owned marine terminal in order to restore high-speed ferry service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The Prince Edward Island company said in the proposal that it would operate The CAT ferry from the vacant Eden Street terminal and pay rent of at least $200,000 per year. The company would also make $3 million in improvements to the property, including a dock ramp, pilings, building renovations and parking upgrades.

Service would start in June 2019, according to the proposal, using the 349-foot catamaran Bay Ferries currently runs between Nova Scotia and Portland. The Portland-to-Nova-Scotia service would be discontinued.

July 17's meeting can be heard via the town's website.

At the meeting, prime concerns centered on the amount of space Bay Ferries might need and on the extent of security or exclusion zones that might be required by U.S. Customs and Border Protection due to the ferry's travels through international water.

Councilor Matthew Hochman said he was concerned the proposal's footprint eats up much of the site, making it difficult to fit in other uses that the town might plan for the property. Regarding security zones, "We want to make sure that, if we have a marina in the future, we make sure the public can get in and out while the ferry is in port," he said.

Overall, Hochman said, the proposal could be a great way to reinstitute the ferry and generate revenue for Bar Harbor that would be useful in further developing the site.

"So this could easily be a win-win," he said.

Bay Ferries' MacDonald said the proposal uses the minimum possible on-land footprint by deploying "what we're calling a slower turnaround plan, where we can, as we need to, use the ship itself for holding the vehicles, both those coming and those departing." The plan is designed to leave most of the property open for uses the town wants, he said.

"The sketch of the footprint is preliminary," he said. "We would hope to work with the landscape and planning engineers that might be engaged here to shape that in a way that best meets the city's interest but allows us to still conduct our operation."

The overriding idea, he said, "is that we want to work with the town to help the town achieve its aspirations for the property. But we think, in the meantime, that we can provide an important source of revenue to help you through this process."

MacDonald said U.S. Customs and Border Protection is a key player in the planning process.

"We've kept them apprised of our possible interest in the possible return of ferry service to Bar Harbor," he said. "Producing a facility which is acceptable to [the agency] represents a major ingredient in the reintroduction of ferry service."

However, he said, the company doesn't anticipate any problems in-so-far as the public's ability to use town facilities on the property while the ferry is in port.

At this stage, he said, Bay Ferries is asking for the town's commitment to the process, which would enable the company and the province of Nova Scotia to be able to come to a cost projection, a necessary step before the company and province can make their final decision.

Bay Ferries asked for a decision from the town by Oct. 1 or thereabouts.

Why no RFP?

The council heard from Steven Pagels, who runs Downeast Windjammer Cruises in Bar Harbor. Pagels said he notified the council a year ago of his interest in exploring international ferry service, at a time when no other provider seemed interested. Pagels questioned the town's process of accepting a proposal from Bay Ferries without issuing a solicitation of proposals, which would have allowed him to draft his own in a timely manner.

"I didn't see any request for proposals from the town of Bar Harbor," he said. "We certainly would have responded. We just started reading a media blitz, and it seems like this is almost a done deal….We would certainly like to be heard."

In June, MacDonald told the Mount Desert Islander that, if Bay Ferries Ltd. renews ferry service from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia, it will likely mean discontinuing the Portland-to-Nova-Scotia route. Bay Ferries Ltd., former operator of ferry service from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia, last fall notified the town of Bar Harbor of its interest in resuming that service.

On June 12, Bar Harbor voters overwhelmingly approved a $3.5 million bond issue to fund the purchase of the former ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation. Plans are still in the works on what to do with the property.

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