NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. — Getting competitive bids for one of the world’s oldest and most famous tourist attractions – the Maid of the Mist boats in Niagara Falls – may not be as straight forward a proposal as the Ontario government hopes.
The Niagara Parks Commission came under fire last year for giving the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company an untendered, 25-year renewal on the contract to operate the boats that ferry tourists from both sides of the international border up to the thundering waterfalls.
The commission’s timing couldn’t have been worse politically. The Liberal government was under siege because of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of untendered contracts given out by one of its agencies, eHealth Ontario.
The province told the parks commission to review the decision to not to seek competitive bids, but the commission upheld the deal a second time. The government then cancelled the contract and ordered the NPC to put it out for tenders, a move that caught Maid of the Mist owner and existing lease-holder Chris Glynn off guard.
“We were a bit surprised,” Glynn said in an interview. “It had been twice approved by the Niagara Parks Commission.”
The Ontario government ordered the tendering process to comply with new provincial guidelines to eliminate untendered contracts, and is confident it can complete the bidding process for the tour boats this year, said Tourism Minister Monique Smith.
“We’ve engaged a procurement specialist, a fairness commissioner and we’re just finalizing the details of a contract with a nautical expert,” Smith said in an interview. “The timeline that we set out is eminently feasible and attainable.”
One of the key reasons Glynn is confident of hanging onto the contract, which he took over from his father, is the time it would take to replace all the infrastructure the company has built on the small piece of land at the bottom of the Niagara gorge, spending $15 million in the past 25 years.
In addition to the three-storey main building, which houses the administration offices and a marine workshop, the company has also built an elaborate system of rails and shuttles to move the boats about on land, and on or off the single launch into the Niagara River.
Even the Maid of the Mist boats themselves, the smallest of which hold 300 passengers and the largest 600, were built as one piece and then cut in 12-to-14 pieces to be lowered 55 metres down the gorge by crane before being reassembled at the bottom.
The company isn’t prepared to sell the boats or any of the existing infrastructure on the small piece of land it leases from the parks commission to a potential competitor, said Glynn, so any new operator would have to start from scratch.
“I don’t know how much time it would take them to do that,” he said. “The carriages and shuttles are ours and so are the vessels, so it could take years, we believe, to replicate what we have down here.”
The logistics of the operation are something for the would-be bidders to deal with, not the province, said Smith.
“Whether or not the infrastructure that’s there that belongs to the Maid of the Mist would be purchased by another operator, or would be disassembled and a new operator would have to assemble something, that’s part of their RFP and I’m not going to prejudge or pre-guess what’s someone’s going to propose,” she said.
The Maid of the Mist corporation also has a 40-year lease agreement with the New York Parks Authority running until 2042, and warned that having two separate boat tour operators in the narrow Niagara gorge would present “logistical challenges and safety concerns.”
Other tourist operators in Niagara Falls would not want to see the Maid of the Mist sidelined for even one season while another operator set up shop because the boats are one of the biggest draws besides the falls themselves, said Glynn.
“The brand awareness, the iconic nature of the attraction, our reputation, years of service, the proven results we’ve given the taxpayers of Ontario, to provide a steady cash flow for the NPC. I think will make us the best choice.”
There’s talk of some big players in tourism, such as Disney and Ripley Entertainment, wanting a crack at the Maid of the Mist operations. Ripley’s, which already operates one of its ‘Believe it or Not’ museums in Niagara Falls, Ont, confirmed it is interested in the tour boats, but declined further comment. Disney declined comment.
There is also Bill Windsor, an Atlanta businessman who went to the Ontario Superior Court last year to force the Niagara Parks Commission to open the contract to competition after it granted Maid of the Mist the 25 year renewal.
The Progressive Conservatives said the parks commission, and provincial taxpayers, could end up with a much better return if one of those big companies was the successful bidder for the tour boats.
“If you get them involved in this, there could be spin offs from having companies like that involved who want to not only grow that business, but could spin off other aspects to compliment boat tours,” said Opposition critic Bob Runciman. “The potential there is pretty exciting to contemplate.”
The New Democrats also supported the idea of competitive bidding for the Maid of the Mist tours.
“Everybody gets a better deal when it’s tendered, everybody benefits,” said NDP critic Peter Kormos. “When you have untendered contracts, especially lucrative ones like this, it not only closes the door to the prospect of healthier revenues, but it raises concerns about the propriety of the relationship between the NPC and the existing operator.”
There had been some suggestion the Niagara Parks Commission had at one time owned the rights to the name Maid of the Mist, but Smith said Glynn’s company owns the name and the NPC is allowed to use it in promotional material, but never owned it.
This article was taken from The Canadian Press