NIAGARA FALLS – The Maid of the Mist now has a key ally in its quest to remain open past next summer.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sees the company’s future as an “important” issue and has been working to save the tours, The Buffalo News has learned.
Cuomo is “exploring all possibilities to try and make sure they keep running,” a source within his administration said of the tourism boats.
The commitment raises the hopes of the world-famous company eight months after losing its Canadian tours.
But it also raises questions about whether the state will follow an open bidding process for the use of public land.
A final plan between the state and the Glynn family, who have long run the boats, has not been finalized, but an agreement is believed to be near.
The Glynn family operated boats on both sides of the border and stored them in Canada over the winter.
However, Hornblower Cruises of San Francisco won a contract to run tours in 2014 from the only storage area around the falls, on the Canadian side.
So while passengers will still be able to board the boats from the New York docks, the Maid of the Mist will soon have no place to store the vessels in winter.
The company has been scrambling to find a new place to fuel its American boats and keep its business afloat.
Hopes center around the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant, and engineers have been sent to size up the property.
The power plant ruins sit minutes from the falls and feature a flat, protected surface to shield the boats from the winter ice.
Most importantly for the Glynns: The site is owned by the state, which it has dealt with for decades.
Earlier this year, the state’s parks commissioner said regulatory hurdles stood in the way of the plan. But the Maid has hired lobbyists to plead its case in Albany, and the governor’s involvement could speed up any geological or environmental studies.
Maid President Christopher M. Glynn is not talking about the discussions, but his new competitor has taken issue with any deal.
Hornblower chief Terry MacRae says any new storage site on New York public parkland should be opened for bidding.
“It should be an open and fair competition,” MacRae said. “It seems to me that would be the way for the state to be most transparent on this.” The government should not “protect any individual company’s interest,” he said.
By opening any new facility to bidding, he said, the state could also line its pockets in the same way Ontario did last year. By choosing Hornblower to replace the Maid, the province increased its revenue by $300 million.
Starting in 2014, Hornblower will pay Ontario about 35 percent of yearly profits for 30 years – including $67 million in the first five years of the deal.
By comparison, the Maid pays New York State about 10 percent of its yearly profits – or about $60 million during the entire 40-year deal.
That deal, like its original agreement in Canada, was signed in 2002 with no public notice and no public bidding.
State officials signed the deal behind closed doors under the argument that the Maid was a “sole-source provider” because it held the Canadian docks.
MacRae believes that logic should apply to his company now, too.
“We just would like a fair shot at anything down in that area,” he said. “I’m for competition if it is fair.”
Some have questioned the stability of the possible U.S. site, where the power plant collapsed into the Niagara Gorge in 1956. And the Cuomo administration source stressed that the power plant site was not the only alternative.
Cuomo sees the Maid’s future as an “important” issue because it is a local company synonymous with Niagara Falls. But the power plant ruins or another site would likely be upgraded with money from the Glynns, whose tours brought in nearly $15 million last year.
The Lewiston family has owned the company since 1971, and the boats have driven tourists to the base of the falls since 1846. The family also owns the trademark to the Maid of the Mist name.
The Glynns will operate the American and Canadian tours until 2014.
In the meantime, Hornblower is making plans to build its boats. It is expected to spend $16 million on the boats and other upgrades to the Canadian shore, including an outdoor restaurant.
If the Maid is unable to find another storage site, state officials have said they would consider the Glynn contract void.
Of course, the Maid could also win the bid on a new storage facility on American land. When Canada announced its deal with Hornblower in February, officials said that one other company – which it did not name – was willing to pay more money for the land. Officials pointed to Hornblower’s marketing capabilities and family-friendly operation in awarding the contract. The company already operates dinner cruises on luxurious yachts in California and eco-friendly ferries to Ellis Island near the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island near San Francisco.