PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
The Maid of the Mist Corp. will continue to operate boat tours on the American side of the lower Niagara River after signing an amended deal with New York State that will run for 30 years.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in Western New York Tuesday, said the Glynn family that owns the tour boat company will invest $32 million in the former Schoellkopf Power Station site to build a dock for winter storage and maintenance of its vessels.
“The agreement that the State of New York has reached with the Maid of the Mist for a winter boat storage location on the New York side of the falls will ensure that this Western New York corporation continues to bring great value to the region’s tourism and economy, including revenues for State Parks,” Cuomo said in a statement.
“At the same time, the agreement provides capital improvements for enhanced outdoor recreational attractions for the public’s enjoyment, making this multidimensional accord a win-win for Niagara Falls State Park, the region and New York State.”
In February the Niagara Parks Commission awarded a 30-year contract on the Canadian side to Hornblower Canada Co. for $500 million, ending a decades-long relationship with the Maid of the Mist.
At the time the Glynn family said this could bring about an end to its business, since the Maid of the Mist uses the property it leases from Niagara Parks to store all of its boats. There currently is no such facility on the U.S. side.
The Buffalo News reports that the Glynns have agreed not only to construct a storage area, but also to build and improve unnamed amenities for public and recreational use, which will then be owned by the state.
The former Schoellkopf Power Plant is located minutes from the falls and has a flat, protected surface that would offer protection to the boats in the winter. The power plant collapsed into the Niagara Gorge in 1956.
In addition, the Maid of the Mist payments to State Parks will increase to $105 million over the term of the contract. The Buffalo News says the re-written agreement triples the money that the state would have originally received from the company when the contract was approved in 2002.
When news of this possible deal leaked out a few weeks ago, Terry MacRae, who owns San Francisco-based Hormblower Cruises, said any lease for publicly owned lands should be put out to public tender.
“You’re always worried about competition, but we have no problem with it as long as it’s a level playing field,” said MacRae. “We would not want to see anything that is subsidized by the public in some way. If the state of New York is thinking about doing this, we think there should be a tender process to encourage the competition.”
That view hasn’t changed.
“As the largest ferry operator in New York and the U.S., we are pleased that the state will be benefitting from additional revenue, however the only way to ensure that the state will truly benefit is to open the process to transparent and competitive bidding,” MacRae wrote in an email to Bullet News on Tuesday.
ItHornblower has been around for 30 years and famously operates ferries in New York City to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and in San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island.
The Glynns have owned the Maid of the Mist boats since 1971. They also own the trademark to the company name, which has been in existence for 166 years.
Hornblower’s deal with the Parks Commission is worth $300 million more than a contract signed with the Maid of the Mist in 2008, which was cancelled by the provincial government because it had not been sent to public tender – precisely the type of process MacRae is now demanding from the American authorities.
The Glynns are now operating the Maid of the Mist in Canada on a monthly renewable lease until the end of December, 2013. There was some doubt they would even do that when they lost the lease last year. They have not spoken publicly about the situation at all, but did threaten not to operate in Canada this season.
In 2002 the Glynns signed a 40-year lease to run tours in the United States. That was done without pubic notice or bidding. It is believed that deal is worth about $60 million to New York State. It remains unclear how that arrangement is impacted by the developments in Canada. Unnamed New York officials told the Buffalo News they would consider the contract with the Glynns void if the Lewiston family is unable to secure a place to store and maintain its boats.
Hornblower will pay $60 million to the Niagara Parks Commission during the first five years of the contract. The remaining $440 million will be paid over the following 25 years.
Hornblower also has plans for an overhaul of the boat tour property, including changes to the street level plaza and a redesigned dock.
Modifications will eventually include an accessible, motorized tram to help carry passengers from River Road down to the boarding area. There will be a viewing platform at the water level and a more obvious and ‘visually appealing’ upper level so customers can easily see the entrance to the attraction. Hornblower also wants to bring back the incline railroad that was taken out of service in 1990. All of this will allow it to move more passengers to the dock quicker.
Hornblower is building new boats which it says will include improved viewing areas for passengers, washrooms and concession areas. Hornblower plans to run two boats, each capable of handling 599 passengers. It will have a third rescue boat at dockside. Two Canadian companies are among those in the running to build the boats, one located in Quebec and one in Ontario. Construction is expected to take about a year.
Company spokeswoman Tegan Firth said Tuesday the company plans to stick with his schedule of beginning operations in 2014. There has been talk of Hornblower asking the Niagara Parks Commission to void the lease with the Glynn’s early, but that seems unlikely with only next season to run on the agreement.
Niagara Parks Commission Chairwoman Janice Thomson said the contract with Hornblower was based solely on the Canadian operations. She said it was always a possibility that New York State could operate its own boat tour – whether that be with the Glynns, Hornblower, or someone else.