POLITICS

Nova Scotia government signs amended deal to resume ferry service to Maine

11/12/2013 10:20 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
HALIFAX - The government of Nova Scotia has signed an amended deal to re-establish a ferry service in May between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine that it says gives it greater oversight on the operator's finances.

The revised agreement allows the provincial government to audit the books of STM Quest in an effort to ensure that public funds offered for the resumption of the service are protected, Tourism Minister Michel Samson said Tuesday.

"This will increase accountability to Nova Scotians," Samson told a news conference.

An agreement to resume the ferry link was announced in September by the previous NDP government, nearly four years after it scrapped a subsidy for the money-losing service.

Samson said most of the provisions in that deal have been kept in the new contract, including an offer of a $21-million forgivable loan over seven years. Of that, $10.5 million of would go towards the startup costs in the first year of the ferry service, with another $1.5 million set aside annually for marketing.

STM Quest is also still required to invest $3 million in the service in the eighth year of operations.

A spokesman for Samson said the government would release the agreement at a later time.

The chief operating officer of STM Quest said the new ferry service, to be called Nova Star Cruises, will be running daily from May 1 until Nov. 2 of next year.

"We've been working extremely hard to ensure that everything that needs to be in place is in place for the spring startup of this service," said Steve Durrell.

"We are extremely confident we'll be able to meet that date."

He said the company has bought advertising in U.S. and Canadian publications for the spring tourism season, and added his company will soon begin recruiting employees in Portland and Yarmouth.

Durrell said the company plans to have a departure at 9 a.m. from Yarmouth with a 5 p.m. arrival in Portland. The ship would then depart Portland at 8 p.m., arriving back in Yarmouth at 7 a.m. the next day.

He said the company is installing a theatre, a casino and new seats aboard the vessel. Prices haven't been set.

Keith Condon, the chairman of the Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership, said his community group received word Tuesday from local Tory MP Greg Kerr that funding is available from the federal government to refurbish the ferry terminal.

Condon said the deal would provide about $2.6 million for the terminal refurbishment, with Ottawa providing about 80 per cent of the funds for the upgrades and the municipality responsible for the rest.

Kerr's office declined comment, and a spokesman for Transport Canada declined to comment on whether an agreement was in place.

However, the federal department later sent an email saying it is "exploring options" to help with upgrades to the ferry terminal.

Zach Churchill, a cabinet minister and the member of the legislature for Yarmouth, said his community is eager to begin rebuilding its tourism industry.

"There's nobody on this side of the house that thinks it's going to be the be all and end all for this region economically, but it is an important piece of the puzzle," he said.

"We're the closest link in this province to one of the largest tourism markets in the world."