Ferry news expected soon, says minister

Tina Comeau
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YARMOUTH - When Graham Steele talks about renewed ferry service for Yarmouth, he says he’s so optimistic about the process that is unfolding that he doesn’t want to use the word ‘if’ ferry service returns, but instead he prefers to talk in terms of ‘when’ a ferry comes back.

Graham Steele, the minister of Economic and Rrural Development and Tourism looks over a graph that shows the ridership of Yarmouth ferries over the years.

And the minister of the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism says he is certainly hoping to have positive news to share in Yarmouth in a few weeks as the process continues of evaluating the three companies who have submitted bids to operate a ferry service.

“It is progressing as quickly or even more quickly than I expected,” Steele said when he stopped by the Yarmouth Vanguard’s newsroom on Friday, July 26, to provide an update on where things stand with the ferry.

“One of the stages is to have a full-day meeting with each of the three companies. Two of those meetings are now finished. The second one was yesterday and the third one is scheduled to take place on this coming Monday,” Steele said.

The three companies that have submitted bids during the latest RFP (request for proposals) round are P&O Ferries, based in England, STM/Quest based in the United States and Balearia Caribbean Ltd., based in Miami.

Steele was in Yarmouth on Friday meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and other business people throughout the day. But given that on July 5 he had stated it would take about three weeks to sift through the evaluation process, he said he felt it was important to let people know what has been going on. He knows that a ferry is very much on the minds of people in southwestern Nova Scotia, and Yarmouth in particular.

“As soon as I cross the county line the first question anybody asks is what is going on with the ferry,” he said, adding he expects to be back again soon to share more news – not in a matter of months, he said, but in weeks.

“I expect to be back in Yarmouth very shortly with news about who our selection is, which of the three is the best to move forward with,” Steele said.

Asked how the submitted proposals this time ­­compare to the ones submitted in an RFP back in January, which were both rejected by the province, Steele says comparison-wise it is a matter of apples to oranges.

“The last process was done in a very formal RFP request-for-proposals kind of way where you issue the criteria and it’s just hands off until the proposals came in,” he said, saying the province learned a lot from that experience. “The latest process has been much more informal, a lot more back and forth, really a continuing conversation between us and a whole lot of ferry companies around the world that we thought might be interested and we’re really pleased to have three business plans, and we think they are three quality business plans.”

Even so, Steele does not want to completely guarantee that one of the plans will be selected to move forward with. But then again, he sure sounds like he wants to say that.

“Can you say for certain than one of the three will move forward?” he was asked by this newspaper.

“No I can’t say that because right now it’s not in my hands, it’s in the hands of the evaluation committee, and I think it’s really important, especially when people from Yarmouth are involved in that process, not to second guess them or anticipate what it is they’re going to tell me,” he said. “Let me put it this way, every single thing that I’ve heard to this stage is positive, so I would be surprised if the outcome of this process were not positive.

“I’m told that each one of the three proponents appears to have demonstrated technical competence to run a ferry,” he added. “But there is a difference between that and actually saying that they’re the right fit for this route. But I’m very hopeful and very optimistic, to the point where I’m personally talking about when the ferry comes back, not if the ferry comes back.”

He says the target is still to have ferry service start up again in 2014.

“If we ever reach the point that that is no longer possible that is certainly something I will share with people but right now we are on track," he said.

But Steele also said the province needs to let the evaluation process finish, which is aimed at identifying the company that has put forth the best proposal. At that point, he says, everyone will have a lot better idea of how things will proceed in the future and exactly where things stand.

One caution Steele throws out, however, is that people, and tourism operators, should not expect a return of ferry service to equate to a return of the same types of passenger numbers that were experienced back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“When the ferry comes back, what we can expect is for it to come back to a level it was at (when the service ended),” predicted Steele, who said a drop in U.S. visitation is something that is being seen throughout the entire country, and had been witnessed on ferry passenger numbers here during the last years of the Cat service. “We will never get back to those (early) levels. That’s why it’s important, I think, for people to focus not just on is there a boat running, but what else is going on in their resource industries . . . to make sure there is a quality tourism product available.”

A ferry alone, he said, is not the magic bullet answer to the economy of southwestern Nova Scotia.

Organizations: Department of Economic and Rural Development, Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: Yarmouth, United States, Southwestern Nova Scotia England Caribbean Miami

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