February 26, 2010

End of the line for ferry service

TOM BELL

— By

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Ferry1 A protester holds a sign of Tourism Minister Percy Paris photoshopped onto the body of Steve Urkel from the TV show Family Matters as fellow demonstrators file out of One Government Place on Thursday. Scores of protesters were trying to get the attention of NDP Cabinet ministers during the rally to restore the Cat ferry service from Yarmouth to Maine. (Ryan Taplin/Metro Halifax)

Staff Writer

A protest by about 250 people in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Thursday failed to persuade the provincial government to reconsider its decision to stop subsidizing ferry service to Maine.

Nova Scotia's economic development minister, Percy Paris, said it doesn't make sense to keep spending money on a failed business model.

''We invested over $20 million in the Cat, and ridership has been steadily declining in recent years,'' Paris said in a telephone interview soon after meeting with some of the protesters. ''It's not a good business.''

The Cat linked Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, with Portland and Bar Harbor. About 80 percent of the ferry's passengers came from the United States. In December, Bay Ferries Ltd. announced its decision to stop running the high-speed catamaran, citing the lost subsidy.

Before the province decided to end it, Paris asked Gov. John Baldacci if Maine would pay part of the $6 million annual subsidy.

Thaxter Trafton, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, replied in a letter on Nov. 23 that Maine is in a recession and unable to help. The province ended the subsidy three weeks later.

In his letter to Paris, Trafton said he wanted to meet with him to discuss ''sustainable solutions.''

David Farmer, spokesman for Maine Gov. John Baldacci, said the Department of Economic and Community Development is working to set up a meeting within the next few weeks between Trafton and Paris.

On Thursday in Halifax, four buses filled with protesters arrived from southwest Nova Scotia. The region's tourism industry depends heavily on American tourists, who for generations have arrived on ferries from Maine.

Organizers of the protest said more than 500 Nova Scotians will lose their jobs if the ferry service is cancelled. Some protesters carried signs, such as ''Spare Us Paris'' and ''No Ferry + No Tourists = No Jobs.''

Julie Walters, a tourism development officer in Yarmouth who attended the protest, said people are angry that the government decided to cut off the service even though its contract with Bay Ferries Ltd. requires it to pay the company $3 million if the service is shut down.

The six monthly payouts of $500,000 are due to begin April 1. However, the province won't have to make payments once Bay Ferries sells the vessel, according to the contract negotiated by a previous administration.

Time is running out, said Don Haggett, sales director for Lafayette Hotels, which owns 20 hotels in Maine, including two Holiday Inns in Portland.

Even if another ferry service is found for this summer, he said, it will be difficult to market the service to tour companies because they already have sent brochures to customers.

Haggett said hotels and restaurants in Greater Portland and Bar Harbor will be especially hurt by the ferry's cancellation. He said Bangor might fare better because some tour companies will run buses there on the way to New Brunswick.

He said the cancellation has created enormous logistical problems for tour companies, which are scrambling to fill their summer schedules. Their fear of going through such an ordeal again may make it hard for Nova Scotia to get their business in the future, he said.

Haggett said he's glad his company doesn't own any hotels in Yarmouth. For southwest Nova Scotia, he said, the ferry provided a crucial transportation link.

''This will destroy Yarmouth,'' he said. ''Those guys are just doomed.''

But Paris, Nova Scotia's economic development minister, said Nova Scotia must focus on promoting the province to markets other than the East Coast of the United States.

He said there is potential to market the province to African-Americans because of Nova Scotia's history.

After the Revolutionary War, the British settled more than 3,000 black loyalists and 1,200 slaves and servants in British-controlled North American colonies, mostly New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com

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