NIAGARA FALLS – No one seems to know exactly what the new lawsuit challenging the Maid of the Mist will mean for Niagara Falls.
It could spell the end for an iconic local company that has taken people to the base of the falls for centuries.
It also could disrupt the popular boat tours at the height of the tourist season.
Or Hornblower could simply end up losing its case.
But one thing’s for certain: The suit, to be played out in State Supreme Court starting next month, already includes many intriguing angles for local residents.
The heart of the argument by Hornblower Cruises & Events of California lies in the contract that the Maid has with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
That agreement allows the Maid to lease valuable public land at the base of Niagara Falls for the purpose of operating its popular boat tours.
The Maid keeps most of the profits from the service but pays New York State a share of each boat ride.
For years, the state has said little about how this agreement came to be. Hornblower’s suit sheds a bit more light on the state’s contention that the current 40-year contract with the Maid of the Mist – as well as previous contracts that dated from more than a century ago – did not need to be put out to bid.
The contract to lease the prime land at the base of the Niagara Gorge was never opened to public bidding, state officials have said, because the Maid was considered the “sole-source provider” of the tours.
In other words, no company other than the Maid could conceivably provide the American tours because they depended on the storage facilities controlled by the Maid on the Canadian side.
Those facilities – which protect the boats from the icy winter waters – have been used to store the Maid’s American and Canadian fleet for decades. No storage or fueling facilities have ever existed on the American side.
In justifying the lack of public bidding for the 2002 lease, state parks officials say that “it would be impossible for [the Maid] to use the American side for anything akin to their operation across the river,” other than to “pick up and discharge passengers,” according to the suit.
That statement was given in 1996 in response to concerns from the State Comptroller’s Office about why the new lease was not being put out to public bid.
And what would happen to the American contract if the Canadian operations, for some reason, were no longer controlled by the Maid?
State parks officials, according to a letter obtained in the suit, said they “could negotiate with” or “assign the balance of the [New York license] to,” whichever “new vendor” was awarded the license in Canada.
Hornblower says that it wanted a chance to do just that, but was never afforded the opportunity by state officials.
And company officials now say – given the previous reasoning – that they don’t understand the state’s recent agreement to let the Maid build a new storage facility on the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant.
That’s not the only instance where Hornblower is trying to use New York State’s words against it.
It also cites official state parks policy that calls for the state to “encourage competition for private sector investment and operation of public service facilities at State Parks and Historic Sites.”
State officials have said they do not need to put the lease out to public bid because the $30 million in storage construction at the Schoellkopf site is covered under an amendment to the original 2002 contract.
But Hornblower says in the suit that the state would essentially need to “move heaven and earth [and, according to recent regulatory filings, solid waste and storm water runoff]” for the company.
The crux of the lawsuit may lie in the state’s ability to prove that the Schoellkopf modifications are not significant enough to warrant a new deal and, therefore, public bidding.
Just as intriguing is the choice of legal representation by Hornblower.
In addition to its New York City legal team, the San Francisco company has chosen John P. Bartolomei to represent it in the proceedings.
Bartolomei is a longtime Niagara Falls attorney who seems to regularly find himself at the center of high-profile cases.
Only recently, he has served as legal representative for Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the controversial downtown landowner.
Last year, he also represented Nik Wallenda, the “King of the High Wire” who fought the city over unpaid expenses after his history-making wire-walk.
The Maid of the Mist case may not be as closely watched as Wallenda’s breathtaking event that drew worldwide attentionlast summer. But it could prove to be just as important to Niagara Falls.
“I have never seen something so blatantly against the law as this,” Bartolomei said last week. “To me, it’s as clear as day. I think we will prevail.”
Maid officials have said they “are confident that the courts will determine that this lawsuit is without merit.”
The next phase of the suit begins April 11.