The unraveling of the Maid of the Mist on Canadian shores began with a question: Why was the government renewing a long-term lease for the iconic boat tours without seeing if any other companies had better proposals?
It's just as legitimate a question on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls.
The controversy in Ontario lingered for four years before finally forcing open the long insulated Niagara Parks Commission in Ontario and leading to a competitive bidding process for the boat tours for the first time in its history.
What the parks commission in Niagara Falls, Ont., got was a lease that will bring in substantially more revenue than the deal done without competition.
It's a lesson that could be learned on this side of the border.
Back in New York, State Parks a decade ago quietly struck a 40-year deal with the Maid of the Mist Corp. to continue offering the famous falls tours from Niagara Falls State Park.
The unusual deal was done without public bidding or public hearings – based on the fact, state officials have since said, that the company was a “sole-source provider” because it held the rights to store its boats in Canada.
Here was the state's dilemma: There is a dock on the American side of the Niagara River below the falls but no existing place to store boats during the icy winter months.
Flash forward to February, when the Ontario government chose California-based Hornblower Cruises to offer the boat rides from the Canadian shore to the falls starting in 2014, throwing the future of local Maid of the Mist Corp. and its lengthy lease with New York State into question.
It was a situation the state could have seen coming.
Now, faced with the possibility of losing the boat tours from an already fragile tourism industry in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the state has crafted a new arrangement in which the Maid of the Mist Corp. will invest $32 million in building a U.S. winter storage area at the base of the former Schoellkopf Power Station.
The deal, done without competitive bidding, will amend the Maid of the Mist's existing contract with State Parks, giving the state more revenue and the opportunity for better access to parts of the gorge.
But why not open the opportunity to other proposals? Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a news conference earlier this month, called it a “unique circumstance” – an answer that begs for more explanation when you're talking public dollars.
The crux of the deal seems to be that the Maid of the Mist has promised to keep the New York boat tours running without interrupting its typical summer schedule. If it can't do that, according to its new agreement with the state, the company could risk losing its contract.
“The state's priority has always been to ensure uninterrupted tour boat service for visitors to Niagara Falls,” said State Parks spokesman Dan Keefe. “The Maid of the Mist has a binding contract with State Parks to provide that service.”
It may be the best path to keeping the tours running in New York. But without seeking other proposals, the state will never know if there was a better way.
Part of the allure of Niagara Falls is that it is shrouded in mist and mystique. Public contracts at the falls shouldn't be.
It's a lesson the Canadians have already learned.