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Loss of Maid of the Mist contract may sink ferry service

The contract for operating the Maid of the Mist boat tours in Niagara Falls has been given to the Hornblower Canada Company, a division of a U.S. firm.

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After more than a century of ferrying tourists from around the world, the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. will no longer operate boats in Niagara Falls.

As of spring 2014, the contract will belong to California-based Hornblower Canada Co., which was one of six operators that entered into the competitive bidding process ordered by the provincial government. But losing the job has left the Maid of the Mist company questioning whether it will keep running the ferries until the new outfit takes over, creating the possibility that Niagara Falls could be without the iconic tourist attraction for more than a year.

"The implications of this decision are very complex, and impact on many parties and create many uncertainties, including whether or not a boat tour service will be offered in Niagara Falls, Ont. in 2012," Christopher Glynn, president of the company, said in a statement released Wednesday.

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In 2009, the Niagara Parks Commission, an arm of the provincial government that controls land and buildings near the fall, approved a 25-year lease extension for the American company without inviting rival bids. But the province ordered that the contract be bid on after complaints that other companies had been turned away and other trouble surfaced at the commission, including issues surrounding executive expenses.

A fairness commission and outside experts were appointed to prevent bias and assist the parks commission.

"I can assure all of Ontarians that this was an absolutely waterproof, 100-per-cent fair and honest process," said Janice Thomson, chair of the Niagara Parks Commission.

The new agreement is expected to generate more than $300-million more than the previous contract, the commission said, including a guaranteed minimum revenue of $67-million in the first five years.

Ms. Thomson did not return calls after Mr. Glynn put out his statement. In an interview earlier, she said the company will go on month-to-month contracts until Hornblower takes over.

"We're not anticipating a gap in service, it's the option of the current operator to continue," she said. "They run a very successful, well-managed business so we don't see any reason why there would be a gap."

Hornblower, which already operates ferries in San Francisco Bay and to the Statue of Liberty, was judged on financial ability, marketing and accessibility of boats, Ms. Thomson said. Bidding companies were allowed to indicate their preference for when to begin the contract.

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The company will be replacing the existing fleet of vessels, said Hornblower spokeswoman Tegan Firth. There still need to be discussions about the name and look of the ferries. "I think everything's on the table now," she said, adding major changes to staffing and frequency aren't expected.

The Minister of Tourism's office directed questions about the potential gap in service to the commission. But Minister Michael Chan said the new contract is a "very good deal" for Ontario.

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