Some local business owners are leery of the federal government’s promise to purchase a replacement ferry for the decommissioned MV Holiday Island. 

Government announced, last Wednesday, its intention to buy a 16-year-old Norwegian vessel, the MV Fanafjord. Transport Canada expects the ship to be ready to run between Wood Islands, PEI and Caribou, Nova Scotia by May 2024. 

“I’ll believe it when it’s here,” said Tanya Arch, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe located in the Wood Islands Market.

When she first opened in 2019, government was promising Davie Shipyard in Quebec would build a new ship for the eastern PEI run within five years. This has been delayed until at least 2028.

Ms Arch opened shop with a business plan that relied, to a great extent, on consistent ferry traffic.

She was forced to face instability caused by Tropical Storm Dorian in 2019, the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 as well as interrupted ferry services and Hurricane Fiona in 2022 – all of which rattled eastern PEI’s tourism industry and economy.

“We had other growing pains too,” Ms Arch said. She withstood the steep learning curve associated with operating her first small business.

All challenges considered The Whistle Stop started to hit a stride last tourist season.

“I gathered up every last penny from my couch cushions and decided to open again this year,” Ms Arch said.

She now regrets taking the risk.

Ferry runs were cancelled for approximately 20 of 100 peak tourism days because the 30-year-old MV Confederation had mechanical issues. This all while the decommissioned Holiday Island’s chartered replacement wasn’t available to pick up the slack until mid-July. 

“This was the last nail in my coffin,” Ms Arch said. She is fairly certain she won’t open her Wood Islands business again next season.

She plans to shift her energy toward the dairy bar she operates at Panmure Island beach. Business clientele there includes more locals and tourists who arrive on the Island by various routes.

Government intends to move forward with the Fanafjord purchase unless another vendor shows interest and has the ability to compete for the contract before September 6. That’s 15 days after the government published an advance contract award notice. If there is a compatible and competitive bid the process to purchase will be delayed. 

Government can’t negotiate before the 15 days are up. Until then, the total cost of the Fanafjord will be unknown. 

“It’s a great first step. The fact that we are getting a new (ferry) is amazing,” Hans Sell, owner of Pappy’s BBQ Joint in Belfast, said. His restaurant relies heavily on ferry traffic and tourists otherwise attracted to Kings County. “But when I see it I will believe it.”

Mr Sell is still frustrated that the government and Northumberland Ferries Ltd. didn’t work more effectively to prevent issues from occurring this summer.

This was echoed by Eastern PEI Chamber of Commerce president Blair Aitken. 

“We’re grateful for the response that has been made,” Mr Aitken said. “But having said that, they’re acting on the recommendation the chamber made to them six or seven years ago.”

A chamber task force will continue to discuss issues to address moving forward including frequency and dependability of the service, the need for a thorough economic impact assessment and the potential to lengthen the ferry season.

“These are still things that have to be kept at the forefront until we feel they’re adequately dealt with,” Mr Aitken said.

“Purchasing this vessel is a clear indication that our government is listening to the real concerns of rural areas across this country,” said Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay at a press conference last week. 

“We heard you and we took action, we took action to ensure the long term stability and reliability of the ferry service.”

Pushing political momentum toward purchasing wasn’t a walk in the park, Mr MacAulay said.

“You don’t get a call every morning in Ottawa asking, ‘what would you like today?’ That does not happen, it’s the other way around and this particular deal was challenging to say the least. But we got there with the help of (colleagues),” he said.

“It was a big deal to get this Norwegian boat, and for a few days I’m going to rest on this issue.”

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 30, 2023 at 03:00

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eastern Graphic   Montague, Prince Edward Island
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