What if we just gave Americans cash to come to Nova Scotia?

Crazy? Is it any crazier than pouring more millions of dollars into an American ferry, American docking facilities, American customs officers…?

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Say, here’s an idea.

My idea isn’t quite the Chase-the-Ace, get-us-on-national-TV, fun-and-games scheme Tim suggested a few months back. “Simply toss 20 dollar bills from a helicopter above downtown Yarmouth,” he proposed as his own common sense alternative to pouring still more millions of our tax dollars into that bottomless ocean that is our from-nowhere-to-no-way-not-now ferry service.

But our gormless government needs all the ideas it can get, fun or otherwise. And I’m prepared to do my bit.

First, however, the latest news from the ferry front: this summer’s Bay Ferries’ service between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor, Maine — home of the soon/someday-to-be newly refurbished US terminus (your Nova Scotia tax dollars at work) — was supposed to begin this Friday (June 21).

It won’t.

Like spring in Nova Scotia, the ferry service will begin when it begins, give or take, make or break.

“It is now anticipated that the earliest date on which any service could commence is in the mid-summer,” a Bay Ferries press release explained without really explaining anything.

Bay Ferries, which is paid a secret — don’t ask — management fee to make the ferries run on time (or maybe just run someday), accepts no responsibility for this failure, and, according to Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan, will, therefore, pay no penalty (see that un-seeable management contract).

Bay Ferries blames a combination of factors — “most significantly the complexity of the construction and approvals process associated with the renovation of the Bar Harbor ferry terminal” — for the delay. “Most people recognize that delays are possible in projects of this magnitude and complexity,” the company says.

So Bay Ferries has cancelled all 622 the Cat’s bookings — just 622? — between June 21 and July 7, offering want-to travelers the opportunity to drive an additional three-and-a-half hours from Bar Harbor to Saint John, NB, and board one of Bay Ferries’ other vessels, the MV Fundy Rose, for a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute sail to Digby.

July 7? Does that mean this summer’s ferry service will actually begin by then? Or could sailing still be delayed even beyond that date.

When the Yarmouth Vanguard’s Tina Comeau asked Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald that question, he answered without answering at all: “Yes, we do not anticipate that service will commence before mid-summer,” he said. “But we are proceeding incrementally and will keep in communication with our customers.”

Thanks for that un-clarification.

How much is all this costing us? Our Obsessive Editor Tim keeps track of such things:

I’ve tracked publicly announced ferry expenditures since Bay Ferries was awarded the contract in 2015, as detailed below. None of these figures includes the costs of provincial bureaucratic staff working on the ferry file:

2015: $74,496 incidental expenditures to Bay Ferries to prepare for the service

2016: $13,100,000 subsidy to Bay Ferries (35,466 passengers)

2017: $10,248,421 subsidy to Bay Ferries (38,933 passengers)

2018: $1,500,000 for upgrades to the Portland ferry terminal*

2018: $13,964,393 subsidy to Bay Ferries (50,187 passengers)

2019: $8,500,000 for upgrades to the Bar Harbor ferry terminal

2019: $13,800,000 subsidy to Bay Ferries (target of 60,000 passengers)

Total: $61,187,310

That’s just over $15 million for each of the four years of ferry service.

A quick aside. Before it was fired after just two seasons in 2015, the previous government-contracted operator, Nova Star, burned through a staggering $41.5 million in subsidies. (That’s over $100 million if you’re counting.) The good/bad news is that Nova Star carried 59,018 passengers in its first year, more than Bay Ferries has carried in any season to date.

Of course, Bay/McNeil government claimed the Cat was on track for 60,000 passengers this season before… um… “the complexity of construction and approvals.”

There is always something.

And then there is this.

According to the brighter mathematical minds than mine at the subscription business website allnovascotia.com — Nova Scotia taxpayers shelled out “at least $650” for each and every tourist who sailed on the ferry during the first three years of Nova Star’s service.

That’s a lot of money even if we accept Tourism Nova Scotia’s claim — which we don’t —that those visitors spent “around $2,400 to $2,600 per tourism party,” whatever that means.

No wonder Tim and others have looked for better ways to spend that money. Like dropping cash from helicopters. “All I’m saying,” says Tim…

… “is let’s spend the same dollar amount towards helping the south shore economy, but let’s spend in more intelligent ways. We could subsidize young people’s university tuition, or give them a living allowance to attend trade school. We could give all of Yarmouth free high-speed internet. We could start a revolving loan fund so people without capital can start small businesses. We could… [insert your own idea here] and get a better return than we’re getting from the ferry.”

All worthy ideas, of course, but if the purpose of all those subsidies is to seduce Americans to come to southwestern Nova Scotia to spend their Yankee dollars — and that is what we’re told is the purpose— why are we spending so many of our tax dollars to lease American ferries, fix up American docks, pay American customs officers and (dare we mention it?) pay unmentionable management fees to operators who don’t seem to be able to manage the successful operation of their ferry service?

What if we just cut out the middlemen?

What if we simply offered to pay Americans $15-million a year to spend their vacations — and their money — in southwestern Nova Scotia? We could offer them vouchers, good for deep discounts at local hotels, restaurants, bars, craft shops, whale watching adventures.

At the very least, we would be channeling real money directly to the people we say we want to help — the people who run the tourist businesses, the people who work for them and the people who depend on them — instead of subsiding American vessels, wharves, border guards. Not to mention… OK, I won’t mention… that secret management contract.

So there’s an idea. What’s yours? Like I said, our government could use a few.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner June 17, 2019.

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