NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Deliberations in Canada over the future of the Maid of the Mist sightseeing boats at Niagara Falls are being closely watched in the United States, where elected and tourism officials want to avoid disruptions to an iconic draw that brings millions of visitors to the Falls each year.
The double-decker boats ferry people from both sides of the Niagara River to the base of the Horseshoe Falls under separate agreements with New York state and Ontario. The tours have run continuously since 1846.
The Niagara Parks Commission, an arm of the Ontario government that controls the land and buildings around the Canadian falls, approved a 25-year contract with the Maid of the Mist Steamship Co. in 2008. But the lack of competition for the deal drew criticism, so the commission called for bids from competing boat tour operators for the first time.
The multimillion-dollar bids are under review; the commission is expected to make its recommendation to Ontario's tourism minister in February, though at one point it had anticipated choosing a company by the end of last year.
"It's a very, very complex, detailed process," said the parks commission's interim chairwoman, Janice Thomson. "We're happy that it's thorough because it's a decision that's very important."
She declined to say how many bids were submitted.
The effect that a change in operations in Canada would have on the tour boat business across the river is unclear. Among concerns is whether a new company would allow the Maid of the Mist to continue to store its boats on the Canadian shore in the off-season. Space is short on the U.S. side.
Sen. Charles Schumer has asked Premier Dalton McGuinty to ensure that the Maid of the Mist continue to have access to the Canadian docks and storage regardless of what happens to the Canadian lease, because it would be impossible to build dry docks on the American side.
"I respectfully request that you take every effort to ensure that the final proposal does not exclude the ability to continue an American-based tour service," Schumer wrote.
And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also has sought assurances for the American business, which provides 150 seasonal jobs. The Maid of the Mist Corp. has a 40-year contract through 2042 with New York state.
"As you make decisions on continuing the current contract or beginning work with a new company, I want to stress that you make every effort to maintain U.S. jobs and uphold the quality of service," Gillibrand wrote in a letter to Thomson.
Thomson said the request for proposals had only to do with the land lease on the Canadian shore and declined to say whether the potential effects on the American business were part of the commission's discussions.
Whoever wins the contract will pay a base annual rent of $5.5 million, said commission spokesman Tony Baldinelli. He declined to discuss other terms. The previous 21-year lease required a rent of 15 per cent of gross revenue.
The contract with New York's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, based on factors including gross revenues, gift shop sales and passenger counts, brought in about $1.5 million last year, New York parks spokesman Peter Brancato said.
Maid of the Mist spokesman Tim Ruddy declined to comment on the situation, citing a non disclosure agreement included in the request for proposals.
The Maid of the Mist tours attract more than two million passengers yearly. They bring in a regular celebrity clientele that has included Marilyn Monroe, Diana, Princess of Wales, and president Jimmy Carter.
Hundreds of riders at a time don blue plastic ponchos to protect them from the drenching mist as captains manoeuvre the boats through swirling whitewater to within 100 metres of the walls of water crashing down from 50 metres above.
The Glynn family of Lewiston, N.Y., has owned the company since 1971.
Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. President John Percy and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster praised the Glynns' stewardship of the tourist draw and urged Canadian authorities to maintain continuity.
"For decades, the Maid of the Mist has been synonymous with excellence and has offered tremendous levels of customer service," Percy said.