BY TOM BELL STAFF WRITER firstname.lastname@example.org (Portland Press Herald) The Nova Star ferry will start its second season in better shape than its first, with increased charter bus bookings and another infusion of cash from the Nova Scotia government. The ferry operator also has tweaked its schedule and sailing season in hopes of producing more revenue and lowering costs.
For instance, the vessel is scheduled to depart Portland at 8 p.m. rather than 9 p.m., a change the company believes will encourage people to eat dinner aboard the ship rather than in Portland restaurants. The ferry will operate daily between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, from June 1 to Oct. 13. Last year the service began May 15.
The later start date will save on fuel costs, said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Nova Star Cruises, the ferry operator.
Nova Star Cruises also plans to buy more of its provisions, such as fuel and food, in Nova Scotia rather than in Portland to fulfill a commitment to the provincial government.
“We are committed to buying all of our provisions in Nova Scotia, providing we can,” Bailey said.
Even so, some of the boon felt by Portland businesses last year will likely return. Stacy Begin, the owner of Two Fat Cats Bakery in Portland, said she has exchanged emails with the company about once again supplying pastries and cookies for the ferry. Although there’s no formal deal in place, she said the early contacts have been encouraging.
Last year the bakery supplied 800 pastries daily for early runs of the ferry, although that number dwindled to about 200 as the season went on. Even so, Begin said the orders provided a steady business for her bakery and gave her experience in managing a relatively large account with varying orders.
Begin said she’s heard that the ferry line had trouble finding a bakery in Nova Scotia that is large enough to handle the orders and close enough to Yarmouth to make daily deliveries.
Pratt Abbott cleaners will provide linen service to the ferry, as it did last year. But Charlie Poole, who runs a ship chandlery on Union Wharf, isn’t expecting as much business as last season.
“They tell me they will make a sincere effort to buy more in Canada,” he said, although Poole’s business can be an emergency provider if Nova Star personnel can’t get what they need in Nova Scotia.
“I told them I understand the decision,” Poole said, although he thinks it’s likely the operators will have to turn to him for some things.
“I’ve been to Yarmouth a bunch of times and Portland has much more on its doorstep than Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, does,” he said.
ROCKY FIRST YEAR FOR FERRY SERVICE
The Nova Scotia government originally committed to spend $21 million over seven years to re-establish Portland ferry service, which had been suspended in 2009. But the ferry operator spent that amount in the first few months of its inaugural season, and another $7.5 million was given to the service during its first year.
The government has been heavily criticized in Nova Scotia for spending too much money on the service, which is mostly used by American tourists traveling to Nova Scotia. This year the government has committed to spending an additional $13 million on the service, and already has disbursed $4 million to the operators.
Maine has not provided any subsidy to the service, although it has allocated $640,000 to the city of Portland to make improvements at the Ocean Gateway terminal, including a new gangway to allow passengers to board the ship without walking on the ramp used by vehicles. The gangway will be used except during extreme tides.
Nova Scotia officials have said they expect Gov. Paul LePage to fulfill a commitment for Maine to provide the company a $5 million line of credit to operate through 2015. LePage said during his re-election campaign that he would submit legislation to do that, but has yet to do so.
His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, did not respond to phone or email messages seeking information this week.
TICKET SALES, BUS BOOKINGS RISE
Bailey said the company is optimistic that it will serve a lot more passengers in 2015 than the 59,000 people who used the service in 2014, well short of the goal of 100,000 passengers in the first year. The inaugural season was hampered by a late start in marketing the service and the company struggled to land contracts with charter bus operators, Bailey said. It had fewer than 20 charter buses the entire season.
This year, the company has booked 65 charter buses and is negotiating with more, Bailey said. He said ticket sales have been good, but he would not provide the number of booked fares because the company is obligated to first provide that information to the Nova Scotia government.
“Our bookings are way up over last year,” he said.
Ticket prices are essentially the same as last year, although the pricing structure this year is more complicated because fares will change depending on the time of year and the day of the week, Bailey said.
A one-way passenger fare with no amenities is $104 before June 30 or after Sept. 8, including all fees. Between those dates, the fare is $124.
Unable to find an off-season route, the ferry has spent most of the winter in Charleston, South Carolina. Operators had hoped to secure a winter route to add to the service’s 2014 revenue stream.
The ship will leave Charleston on May 8 and arrive in Yarmouth on May 15, taking on a crew of about 120.
The ship will depart Yarmouth on May 22 and arrive the next day in Portland, where it will be inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard. On Sunday, May 31, the ship will be open to the public for free tours.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.