YARMOUTH — Graham Steele, Nova Scotia’s minister of economic and rural development and tourism, sat in the front row Monday on one of a couple dozen folding chairs facing West Nova MP Greg Kerr and others at the Digby ferry terminal.
The time had come to retire the venerable ferry between Digby and Saint John, N.B., and find a replacement, Kerr announced. A new ultra-modern ferry is perhaps just months away from calling the Bay of Fundy home now that Ottawa has pledged $60 million to replace the Princess of Acadia.
Meanwhile, the grass grows tall through cracks in the pavement at a mothballed Yarmouth ferry terminal just an hour’s drive away.
Should Yarmouthians, now experiencing their fourth summer without a service to Maine, despair of ever seeing a ferry in their harbour again?
“I don’t see why,” said Steele.
In fact, Steele said Monday that he’s confident something can be worked out because he’s seen a list of potential ferry operators for Yarmouth.
He won’t say how many prospective companies are on that list.
“We don’t think that’s helpful,” said Steele.
“All I can say is … I’ve seen the list of people who have expressed interest, and these are serious operators. They know what it takes. They know how to make a ferry system work.
“I don’t want to unduly raise expectations (but) I’m very hopeful that within a couple of weeks we’ll be able to say much more definitely what’s on the table.”
A ship for Yarmouth would likely be a seasonal service, and the provincial government is once again seeking interested parties who have a ferry plan. The first time the province sought expressions of interest, two bids were received and rejected.
That was several months ago, and the province was soon ready to seek more.
“The government is willing to put in a substantial amount of money … in order to get a service headed in the right direction, but it can’t be a large permanent subsidy,” said Steele.
And that money, up to $21million over seven years, is not to be handed over too freely, Steele said.
“Something that we would not be looking on favourably is any plan that required front-end loading where the bulk of the money would be required right up front. That would be a sign of somebody that doesn’t have a viable plan.”
The province also learned that its first call for proposals was perhaps too formal, said Steele.
“So this process is more flexible, which means that there is a lot of conversation back and forth between us and potential operators which is not something that is possible when you do a formal request for proposals.”
Some operators may need a bit more time in order to put in a bid, he said. That’s why the deadline was recently extended to July 4.
“What we’re trying to do is let them tell us what a viable service looks like. … So that’s why we’re going to be very interested to see what proposals come in so they can tell us what it’s going to take to make it work.”
Some have suggested other Nova Scotia ports like Halifax or Shelburne as a possible international ferry terminus. But it’s only Yarmouth the Dexter government is looking at.
“In the six weeks that I’ve been minister, I’ve been made aware of other proposals for other routes and that’s all very well, but we’re focused on a Yarmouth run,” Steele said.
“If other people want to talk to us about other routes as well, that’s great, but it’s not a substitute for a Yarmouth run.”
The government may be open to suggestions about New England destinations other than Portland and Bar Harbor in Maine for a Yarmouth service, he said.
By BRIAN MEDEL Yarmouth Bureau