November 8, 2013

Portland-to-Nova Scotia ferry service in jeopardy for 2014

Officials say a deal is close for the new ferry, but skeptics say it’s almost too late to salvage next season.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

Less than six months before the planned launch of the new ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia, there’s still no final deal in place between the Nova Scotia government and the Maine company chosen by the province to supply the ferry and operate it.

click image to enlarge

The Nova Star is expected to cruise daily between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, starting next May and running through October.

File photo courtesy STM Quest Inc.

The province “understands the urgency” of getting the deal done quickly so the ferry can begin running May 1, said Michel Samson, the new minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism. But in an email, Samson said the province is still working out details with STM Quest, a joint venture company consisting of Quest Navigation Inc. of Eliot and ST Marine Ltd of Singapore.

Although some in the industry are skeptical that a deal can be finalized in time to salvage the 2014 season, negotiations are in the final stages and an agreement will be announced “very soon,” said Keith Condon of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, co-chair of the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, a group gathering political support for the ferry.

One factor in the delay: There’s a new government in Nova Scotia. Voters there last month threw out the New Democratic Party and replaced it with the Liberal Party.

Ousted premier Darrell Dexter had promised to provide as much as $21 million over seven years to subsidize ferry service. Condon said officials in the new government are committed to following through on that offer and getting the ferry started as soon as possible.

“I know for a fact that the new government has embraced the deal with Quest, and everything is moving along,” Condon said.

Mark Amundsen of Eliot, president and CEO of Quest Navigation, has declined all interviews. In a statement, he said STM Quest has an exclusive “bareboat charter” agreement with ST Marine for the ferry, to be called the Nova Star.

Such an agreement allows STM Quest to hire the master and crew. The vessel, which has never been put into service, has 162 cabins, two restaurants and a maximum capacity of 1,215 passengers. It is 59 feet longer than the Scotia Prince, which operated between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004.

However, it typically takes a year to market a new ferry service to bus tour companies, and the delay in negotiations has put those marketing efforts on hold. Time has already run out for many companies that are booking tours to Nova Scotia and Maine for next summer because they need six to eight months advance notice to sell the tours, said Donna Hanson, vice president of The Maine Tour Connection in South Portland, which specializes in tours of New England and eastern Canada. Her company sells tour packages to tour companies around the country and those companies resell the packages to small groups shopping for bus tours of Maine and Nova Scotia.

“I can’t sell what I haven’t seen, and I can’t sell what I don’t have pricing for,” Hanson said.

Moreover, the delay suggests that there might be a problem with the business model for a ferry that caters to tourists and operates only half of the year, said Eric Junker, owner of Americana Marine Services, a Florida company affiliated with an overnight ferry service that operates in the Dominican Republic.

“At this late date, the validity of the joint venture is seriously in question,” Junker said.

He said a year-round ferry service supported by truckers in the winter months would have a better chance of success. But the Nova Scotia government is looking for a ferry service to operate from May to October. Such a service wouldn’t compete with the existing government-subsidized year-round ferry between St. John, New Brunswick, and Digby, Nova Scotia. That ferry is heavily used by truckers.

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