Yarmouth ferry deal signed, still lots of work to do

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Tina Comeau
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YARMOUTH - An agreement has been signed - the ferry here will resume service in May.

The Nova Star.

The province and STM Quest Inc. have now both signed an agreement to support a new cruise ferry in Yarmouth, targeted to begin in May 2014 – these are signatures that were lacking when the previous government announced in September that a deal had been reached with STM Quest to operate a ferry service.

But the province says there is a lot of work to be done on the part of the ferry company between now and May 2014, which is when the company has committed to re-establishing ferry service.  

The signing of the agreement is a big hurdle that’s been overcome. Now to move into the others.

Steve Durrell, the chief operating officer of STM Quest, said in afternoon press conference that the company is "extremely confident" that it will meet the May 2014 target date for a ferry service that it has set. He said the company is working "extremely hard" to see this happen under what everyone knows are tight deadlines.

Durrell said the company is hoping to be in a position to start accepting passenger bookings early in the New Year.

As the official announcement on the progress to re-establish ferry service was being made Tuesday afternoon in Halifax at 2 p.m., in Yarmouth a joint meeting of Yarmouth town and municipal council was underway concerning the ferry terminal.

At that meeting West Nova MP Greg Kerr said the proposal for funding and transition of the ferry terminal in Yarmouth has been approved.

“We are moving fast here, have a plan, we’ve been working on this plan since January,” said Keith Condon of the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership. “We’re meeting with customs and the border control people, we’re meeting with engineers, and the plan is to rejuvenate the current property for short term, for a two-to-three year period, until we design a new terminal.”

Condon said the figure is around $2.6 million, although it could be a little higher due to other issues. The municipalities will be cost sharing the work with the municipalities, in the neighbourhood of a 80-20 split, with the feds picking up the 80 per cent.

 “Quite a bit of that money will be used for new booths, and new technology and repairing the pontoon, that will be used in the long-term as well, so it’s not all just for short term,” said Condon.

He says long-term work on a terminal replacement continues.

Meanwhile the province is hopeful that all of the work that needs to be done to have a ferry in place in the spring will be done in time.

“We’re certainly hopeful that there is going to be a ferry service in 2014 and that question may be better asked to the company itself because from here forward it’s the company that has requirements that it must meet in order to make that a reality,” Michel Samson, the Minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism told the Vanguard in a 1 p.m. interview on Tuesday. “We’re certainly all aiming towards that and that’s why we’ve moved as quickly as we have on this – it’s with the intention of seeing a ferry service in place for 2014.”

Among the work still required of STM Quest and other levels of government and partners is: having border services in place in both ports, upgrading the Yarmouth ferry terminal, signing berthing agreements in the two ports and getting all of the licences and permits needed to operate a ferry service.

“Obviously we’re optimistic that this can be done. The company has been working hard towards making this a reality so we remain hopeful of that,” Samson says.

“Keep in mind that this is something that should have been done four years ago,” he adds, referring to when ferry service ceased operating in Yarmouth.

“Today is an opportunity to send a message to all of our partners, the residents of Yarmouth, the residents of Nova Scotia and our friends and partners in Maine and the federal government that we’re moving forward and we certainly need their continued support in order to make this a success.”

In September the previous government administration had announced that a deal had been reached to have STM Quest operate ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine. It was stated at the time that the company needed to finalize details with its partner ST Marine in Singapore – which is where the ship eyed for the service has been located – before the agreement could be signed and that the province would be the last signatory to the deal.

Samson says rather than start from scratch, which would have prolonged the process, the recently elected Liberal government decided to build on and clarify what was already in the existing offer letter that the NDP government had drafted.

“We were left with, ‘Do we start from scratch and cause this to be delayed even further?’ or do we try to work with what’s been done, try to strengthen it and help ensure that there’s going to be a ferry service in Yarmouth in 2014 and we decided to go forward and try to make this deal work and certainly understanding that there are some challenges that lie ahead but we certainly hope to see that this is going to be a success story for our province,” Samson said.

The province and company agreed to make amendments to the letter of offer announced in early September. The parties have:

• clarified language and added more detail including how the province will provide funding during the start-up phase, and the terms of senior management salary deferral during the start-up and if there are operating losses

• revised deadlines for conditions the company must meet

• clarified how and when ST Marine will provide its $3 million contribution (this money would be paid if needed after the province's $21 million has been exhausted)

• added auditing rights for the province for more accountability

The province's financial commitment remains the same. It will provide $21 million to the company over seven years, including $10.5 million toward start-up costs, with $1.5 million each year for marketing.

There are a number of terms and conditions for STM Quest Inc. to receive the assistance and earn forgiveness for the loan.

Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill says that a deal has been signed is good news.

"The Yarmouth ferry service is a vital link between our province and the United States, and we fought hard to have it reinstated," he said. "My congratulations and thanks to everyone who has helped so far. Now, we can focus on attracting and welcoming more visitors to our shores, ensuring this service remains sustainable for generations to come."

But Churchill also echoes Samson’s comments that a lot needs to happen between now and next spring for a ferry to sail into Yarmouth harbour.

“There’s no guarantees, there is still a lot of work to be done. We still have to get word on what’s happening with the ferry terminal and the company has a lot of work to do in terms of getting everything ready to launch,” he says. “So despite all of the challenges associated with that we’re still hopeful we can get the ferry in there when it’s supposed to be in and getting back to work to bringing our tourists over.”

The fact that there are no guarantees to a start-up date, despite the company’s commitment, may not be what people want to hear. But Churchill says it’s important to be upfront.

“Our goal is to be honest and upfront with everybody in Yarmouth and everybody across the province. We feel they deserve that, especially being without that service for four years,” Churchill says. “The province is hopeful that we’ll get our vessel back in the water in May 2014, obviously there’s no guarantees in this but we’re going to be a partner all the way and keep working diligently to make sure that it happens.

“The company has taken on a significance challenge here, the province has done all it can to see them on their way, and obviously we’re all in this together, but a lot needs to happen between now and next May,” Churchill says.

For it’s part, STM Quest chief operating officer Steve Durrell says, "We would like to thank the government of Nova Scotia, the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, the state of Maine, and, in particular, the people of Nova Scotia, for their confidence and support in ensuring the return of this vital service. We look forward to providing a world-class cruise ferry service for generations to come."

In a news release the province says that marketing the ferry and Nova Scotia to potential visitors from the mid-Atlantic and north eastern United States are key parts of the service. The Nova Scotia Tourism Agency has been meeting with STM Quest Inc. to co-ordinate the province's tourism marketing plans with the company's detailed plan.

"The people of southwest Nova Scotia have my commitment that the province will continue to work tirelessly alongside them and the other partners to make this new venture a success," said Samson. "I will travel to Yarmouth in the coming weeks to deliver that message myself."

Churchill’s message to the business community and the accommodations sector is to market the area so that Yarmouth and the province are ready when the ferry does start sailing.

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood says this is happening.

"The people and business operators from our town, and around the region, are ramping up now, poised to make the most of the new ferry service once it arrives,” she says.

Mayor Mood notes that the All Hands on Deck initiative she spearheaded in September is well underway.

As for the formal signing of the agreement, Condon said, "We're very pleased there's a signed agreement and things are moving forward. On behalf of the partnership, I want to thank the government for acting quickly. We will be watching eagerly as STM Quest develops and starts marketing the new service, and as other efforts move toward a new Yarmouth ferry in May 2014."

Organizations: STM Quest, Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, ST Marine Vanguard Department of Economic and Rural Development Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Geographic location: Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Halifax Maine United States Singapore Atlantic

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