CAT Operators Eye Daily Trips To Bar Harbor Amid Concern Over Ferry Terminal Plans

Jul 5, 2018

After an eight-year hiatus, the Canadian-owned CAT ferry is weighing the resumption of daily transits between Yamouth, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbor. 

Last month, Bar Harbor voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question authorizing the purchase of the former Marine Atlantic ferry terminal from the state. Plans are underway for a multi-use marina to accommodate cruise ship passengers and serve as a transportation hub for buses.  But at least one member of the Bar Harbor Town Council is urging the community to proceed cautiously.

The sound of the CAT's massive powerplant is a distant memory for many Bar Harbor residents, whose ferry service ended back in 2010. The company does transport passengers from Portland to Nova Scotia on a different route. 

But recently, Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight received a letter that suggests the the Prince Edward Island-based company might want to come back.

"What we understand is that they will have us a specific proposal by our council meeting, which is on July 17," Knight said.

At that meeting, members of the Town Council will weigh the details of Bay Ferries' proposal. The discussion follows the town's vote last month to purchase the old ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation for $3.5 million.

Knight says that's just the beginning of the investment needed to transform the aging terminal into a new, multi-use transportation facility. Knight says the company is offering to pay for some of the improvements.

"They would invest $3 million to get the property into shape in order to accomplish that for next June - I think that's their tentative target date - and they would pay us a lease for the time," Knight said.

The Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to Bar Harbor run has a long history stretching back to the mid-1950s when the Blue Nose ferry was a popular sight on Frenchman Bay. Ferry operations have changed hands over the years and Bay Ferries took over the run in 1997. 

But service was halted about a dozen years later when the company was unable to reach agreement for government subsidies to maintain operations. That financial dispute has since been resolved, but some in Bar Harbor worry that Bay Ferries could encounter resistance from the provincial government for funding in the future.

Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald says his company is no longer dependent on subsidies for its Bar Harbor transit.

"We went as an operation for a period of about 10 years from 1997 through the year 2006, so 10 operating seasons inclusive of where we operated exclusively to Bar Harbor out of Yarmouth, and in that time frame we operated with no government subsidy of any kind," MacDonald said.

MacDonald said the company wants to re-establish transit to Bar Harbor to take advantage of the 3.5 million visitors who flock to Mount Desert Island each year.

But some Bar Harbor residents are less concerned about resumption of ferry service and more concerned about redevelopment of the former terminal. Joe Minutolo is a downtown business owner and a member of the Bar Harbor Town Council.  "The voters of this town voted for a multi-use marina first and foremost," he said.

Some residents have expressed fears that the cruise ship line may wind up wielding too much influence and control over the terminal's development. Their fear stems from the town's decision to hire a consulting firm for the planning process that has close ties to the cruise ship industry. Minutolo says he will not support anything less than a carefully measured review of the overall proposal.

"Let's see this proposal, you know, let's take some time and digest it," Minutolo said. "I don't think we have to run straight-on into this thing. I think we need to take our time and make a really informed decision. And let's face it, this is just our first proposal, we haven't even accepted the deed on this property yet. So let's see what's in the pipleline."

At the end of Frenchman Bay in Hancock, Renata Moise has been listening to the discussions around Bar Harbor's ferry terminal development for the last five years. A member of the group Friends of Frenchman Bay, she's concerned that the property will be transformed into a major docking facility for cruise ships. 

It's a vision that critics say would detract from the natural beauty and ecology of the region. Moise worries about the potential scale of the new facility and whether Bay Ferries can make the financial commitment needed to make its proposal work.

"In my opinion, Bay Ferries is what I would call a Trojan ferry because I believe the costs to provide whatever they need there is going to be far above the $3 million that they're offering," Moise said.

Several merchants along Main Street declined to comment on the project, saying the town's recent vote should speak for itself.  Others said that the CAT's passengers are different than cruise ship tourists because the CAT carries motor vehicles that allow passengers to get around to explore the island.

And that's fine with Kelly Corson, who manages the Travelin' Lobster about five miles away in the village of Town Hill.  She rarely benefits from the cruise ship tourists and she sees those CAT passengers as potential customers for her lobster dinners.

"Yeah, I mean we're located about 15 minutes out of Bar Harbor, so to have any sort of more day visitors heading this way out of town, we welcome it," Corson said.

Members of the Bar Harbor Town Council will receive their presentation from Bay Ferries in a little less than two weeks, but Town Manager Cornell Knight does not expect any decisions to be made right away.

This story was originally published July 3, 2018 at 2:02 p.m. ET.