Bay Ferries’ high-speed Cat, which links Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, is moored Wednesday along the waterfront. City officials say that if Portland were to lose the ferry service, the valuable real estate between the Maine State Pier and Ocean Gateway could be repurposed. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Portland is preparing for the end of high-speed ferry service to Nova Scotia.

Bay Ferries Ltd., the company that has operated the service for the past three years, is expected to unveil a proposal next week to restore a town-owned ferry terminal in Bar Harbor and restart service from there to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. If that happens, the company plans to eliminate its service from Portland.

The loss of the high-speed ferry, called The Cat, means people from the Portland area and south would have to drive at least three more hours to board a ferry for Nova Scotia. But Portland officials say the ferry’s departure would open up opportunities for waterfront development.

“We are in a fortunate position. We have a very active, busy port,” Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said Wednesday. “We have had conceptual discussions that recognize if the real estate was not needed for the ferry service, it could be used for something else.”

That something else could be a new pier between the Maine State Pier and the Ocean Gateway terminal, essentially an extension of India Street, Mitchell said. Such a development would run straight through a 3.4-acre paved area where cars currently queue up to board the ferry. The area is part of a city-owned parcel that stretches from the state pier to Sail Maine at the end of Thames Street.

“If we were to do that, we would also look at possible reconfiguration to support access and use for a new pier,” Mitchell said.

In June, the City Council’s economic development committee agreed to delay pursuing redevelopment of the state pier, near the ferry terminal, because if Bay Ferries decided to leave Portland it could free the area up for potential development.

Luxury condominiums and the new headquarters for Wex, a global payment-processing company, are under construction across Thames Street from the ferry terminal. Sandwiched between the developments is a new AC Hotel.

“We have been making investments to support attracting private sector investment, and we are in the fortunate position that it is happening,” Mitchell said.

SERVICE COULD START IN 2019

At the Bar Harbor Town Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Bay Ferries is expected to present a formal proposal to renovate an unused ferry terminal and restart service to Nova Scotia that was discontinued in 2009.

Last month, Bar Harbor voters overwhelmingly approved a $3.5 million purchase of the ferry terminal from the state of Maine.

In a business plan for the terminal put together by Bermello Ajamil, Bay Ferries said it was prepared to invest $3 million to ready the terminal for ferry use. The business plan also includes using the terminal for a marina, boat ramp and cruise ship tendering area.

Assuming the town accepts Bay Ferries’ plan, “it is estimated that BFL would be able to make the necessary marine and facility improvements in time to initiate operations by the beginning of the 2019 season,” the report said.

In the business plan, Bay Ferries said it could reach up to 80,000 passengers a year by 2021.

Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald, in an email, confirmed The Cat would probably relocate from Portland if the Bar Harbor plan is successful.

“If service was to resume from Bar Harbor, discontinuance of service to Portland would be likely,” he said.

His company intends to lease space from Bar Harbor, and plans would be developed in close consultation with the town and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, MacDonald said. Bay Ferries hopes to start Bar Harbor service next June.

CONVENIENCE AND FEES

A trickle of passengers, in vehicles and on foot, boarded The Cat in Portland on Wednesday afternoon. The boat makes daily or near-daily round trips between Maine and Canada during the height of summer.

Cate and Ron Adams, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, were boarding the ferry on foot. It was their first visit to Maine, and they were on their way to rent a car and spend a few days in Nova Scotia, Cate Adams said. They weren’t sure where Bar Harbor was, but likely wouldn’t have chosen the ferry if it didn’t stop in Portland.

“I can’t take Southwest Airlines to Bar Harbor, can I?” she said.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do what we planned,” said Ron Adams. “We wouldn’t have done the trip; we flew here because of Southwest and because we wanted to see Portland.”

Christian Brayden, 24, who lives outside Augusta, was boarding for a visit to his girlfriend in Nova Scotia. Having The Cat in Portland is convenient now, but a Bar Harbor stop might make sense for people who live farther east, he said.

“When I was in Orono, it would have been more convenient,” he said.

Bay Ferries is supposed to tell Portland by October whether it will ask the City Council to renew a one-year lease for its waterfront parcel.

Mitchell said he wasn’t sure what the economic impact might be if Bay Ferries leaves the city.

“We have not done an economic impact study,” he said. “The overall numbers associated with ferry activity has been about 40,000 passengers a year. That compares with cruise ship activity, which this season will be over 200,000.”

ECONOMIC BENEFIT IN QUESTION

Between 2014 and 2017, Portland earned $3.8 million from cruise ship passenger fees, compared with about $672,000 in fees from the international ferry. In 2017, The Cat carried almost 41,500 passengers, up 17 percent from the year before. MacDonald said the ferry could have done better if it hadn’t suffered engine problems in late June last year.

Although cruise ships bring in more passengers, some question whether that translates to more economic benefit for the city. A Portland Press Herald analysis in June indicated that the city stands to lose about $200,000 in Ocean Gateway revenues, as well as 25 seasonal terminal employees and 12 Maine resident members of The Cat’s crew if the ferry leaves the city.

In the past year, Bay Ferries has been beset with troubles in Portland, including a sudden fee hike from the company that pilots large ships into port. Bay Ferries estimated the higher fee would increase the company’s cost by about $96,000 a year and it has fought the increase in court.

Last November, Customs and Border Protection said it would suspend passenger processing for the 2018 season unless the city or Bay Ferries made improvements to the facility estimated to cost $7 million. Portland officials said the city did not have the money for the upgrades, and Bay Ferries, with the help of the Nova Scotia government, eventually put up $1.5 million to allow screening this season.

Bay Ferries has a 10-year contract with Nova Scotia to provide a ferry service to Maine. Service between Portland and Nova Scotia restarted in 2014 after a four-year hiatus. The Nova Scotia government canceled its contract with the original operator, Nova Star Cruises, after two lackluster seasons, despite $40 million in government subsidies. Bay Ferries received about $9.4 million in Canadian subsidies last year.

The Portland-Canada ferry service has a 36-year history, and the possibility that it will sail into the sunset disappoints those who are accustomed to it.

“I want it to stay in Portland, I live here,” said Denise Lawsure, who was watching the ferry prepare to set off Wednesday afternoon. Her niece’s husband is captain on the ferry and her nephew is the chief engineer.

“I’ve never taken it,” she said, “but I’d miss the opportunity. There’s a chance me and my husband could travel for a little bit.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire