Lack of approval from U.S. border services clouds start date for Yarmouth ferry

The fate of this summer's ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine rests on an approval from American border security officials that hasn't been received.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan told reporters in Halifax on Thursday that although construction continues on the terminal and customs buildings at the property in Bar Harbor, the service cannot begin even after the work is complete pending consent from U.S. Customs and Border Services.

MacLellan said since service operator Bay Ferries got the go-ahead to move its port of call from Portland to Bar Harbor last year, there have been "well over a dozen" submissions and changes exchanged between the company and border services.

It's one of the reasons the province has hired David Wilkins, the former American ambassador to Canada, at a cost of $10,000 US a month, to lobby on behalf of the service.

"We don't want to try to lean in on Homeland Security, of all entities, but what are we missing?" MacLellan said of the reason to bring in the additional help. "What are the things we could do and how do we get to the finish line here."

Brett Ruskin/CBC

While the service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth was to begin Friday, the company announced earlier this month it was delaying the start until at least "mid-summer." Reservations up until July 7 have been cancelled.

The company has said the delayed approval process, along with the construction work, made the change necessary. News website AllNovaScotia.com recently reported customs officials saying it could take between 12 and 18 months to get such an approval.

MacLellan said that while such a timeline "clearly surpasses the season," it's not one government had been made aware of and he remains hopeful Wilkins, who is collaborating with three politicians from Maine, can expedite the process. The minister said he believes due diligence has been done and "there's open space to give this approval and allow this project to go forward."

'The complexities … are extensive'

A delay in the season would likely mean some costs of the service would go down this year, but MacLellan said it's his assumption Bay Ferries would still receive its contractual management fee for overseeing the service.

"The complexities around moving a service from Portland to Bar Harbor are extensive," he said.

"Because the boat is not in the water at this point, I don't think it signals that they have not been doing any work."

Instability in the market

MacLellan said the biggest concern for government right now is tourism operators and their season, particularly in Yarmouth and the surrounding areas. It's for that reason, he said, government has yet to consider the idea of having no season this year.

"We're willing to do anything to get to that point of a sailing season," he said.

Michael Tavares, one of the operators of the MacKinnon-Cann Inn in Yarmouth, said the ferry service accounts for about 90 per cent of their business during the summer season. Typically, some of the ferry's crew stays at the site and Tavares said he's expecting them Sunday when the ship is due to arrive in port.

He said the situation puts instability in the market.

"The travelling public lose confidence, banking systems lose confidence, real estate sales lose confidence — it's a ripple where everybody is impacted on some level when the transportation link is in question," he said.

Still, Tavares said people in the community have faith in the company to get the service running again, which they hope leads to further economic growth for the area.

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