Local government officials last month cheered the state for saving Niagara Falls’ most popular tourist attraction from extinction.
But to Terry MacRae, the new lease on life for the Maid of the Mist is just another missed opportunity for the struggling American side of the falls.
His California boat tours soon will take the Maid’s place on the Canadian side of the falls, and MacRae wanted to make his pitch for upgraded boat tours on the U.S. side, too.
He sought the kind of boat tour monopoly the locally owned Maid of the Mist enjoyed for more than a century, and he was willing to pay New York State big money for that chance: more than $100 million.
The problem, he said, is the cash-strapped state doesn’t want his money and refused to even hear his offer.
“I don’t understand what they are thinking,” MacRae said from his San Francisco office. “What are they hoping to achieve here?”
State leaders say the Maid of the Mist is a national institution, an iconic brand that looms as large as the image of Niagara Falls itself.
And saving it was a major priority of Gov. Andrew Cuomo – especially after a political dispute in Canada put the American business in jeopardy.
“It’s a win-win-win all around,” Cuomo said in December, standing within sight of the falls. “For the Maid of the Mist, for the city and for the tourism industry.”
The big loser, of course, is MacRae, who said his Hornblower Cruises were the victim of a “sweetheart political deal” intended to benefit the Maid of the Mist.
After losing its Canadian storage docks to MacRae’s Hornblower Cruises, the Glynn family of Lewiston depended on getting permission to build a similar storage site on the American side if it was to keep its Maid of the Mist business afloat.
Cuomo’s administration cleared the way, giving the Glynn family the go-ahead to build docks on prime parkland in the Niagara Gorge in exchange for $105 million in increased payments to the state.
MacRae was willing to double that figure, he said, but he also argued that the new U.S. facility – like any project on public lands – should be open to public bidding.
“What does the law require?” he asked. “What is in the public’s good? How do you know unless you give it a go, that there aren’t better choices?”
Just look at Canada, he said.
The Ontario government last year ended its no-bid lease with the Maid and entertained more than six new boat proposals.
Canada chose Hornblower, which runs tours in San Francisco and New York City and promised to build an outdoor viewing area and restaurant space at the base of the falls.
The deal netted the Ontario government more than $500 million over a 30-year span – more than double what it was getting from the Maid of the Mist.
MacRae said he wants to bring the same type of service – and payout – to the American side, whether by running the tours from Canada or by building a new dock in New York.
But officials at the local and state levels aren’t interested.
For one, they said, the new Maid agreement keeps a valued local business operating after more than a century of success – and it requires the company to pay the state three times more than it did previously.
It also preserves what marketers call a brand known throughout the world – a national treasure synonymous with the falls themselves and trademarked by the Glynn family.
“It predates Olmsted. It’s part of our history here,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said. “You have to make long-term decisions. You want to do this once and do this right.”
Dyster said he was not involved in the negotiations but supports the state’s decision. The main concern, he said, was the possibility of a service interruption if another company took over.
“This is not an inconsequential interest to us,” Dyster said. “Outside the falls, this is the premiere attraction. This could do a long-term damage to our side.”
MacRae countered that trying to complete a $30 million dock-building project on the side of the Niagara Gorge in less than a year only increases that possibility.
“Why would you want to build a new shipyard in an environmentally sensitive area of the gorge when there is already one that exists [in Canada]?” he asked.
Local officials said it is that scenario – depending on the Canadian storage docks Hornblower will take over – that caused the dilemma in the first place.
“I love the Canadians, but do we want them to have veto power over its operations?” Dyster asked. “The answer is no.”
Dyster and MacRae agreed on one point: Both sides should have created a more unified strategy for bidding out the tours.
MacRae said there’s no reason New York can’t reverse its stance now, especially since only a tentative agreement has been signed.
He’s also shocked at the loyalty people here seem to have to the Maid of the Mist name.
“Fear of change is what public policy [has become] in Niagara Falls, N.Y.,” MacRae said. “Maybe they should examine that and see how successful it’s been over many years. Maybe there’s a reason why there’s a lot more people going to Canada.”
MacRae has hired a law firm from New York City to persuade Cuomo to reconsider the new deal for the Maid of the Mist. He has sent a letter to Cuomo and hasn’t ruled out filing a lawsuit if the state doesn’t budge.
But the state said its new deal with the Maid of the Mist is legal because it’s an amendment to a 40-year contract already in place that gives the Maid the exclusive right to operate the New York tours.
It was signed in 2002 behind closed doors and without public bidding, because the Maid’s docks in Canada made it the only company in a position to offer the tours.
That logic makes sense, MacRae said, except for the fact that those docks are now owned by Hornblower.
“Now, since it serves their purpose, they’re thinking about it,” MacRae said of the state.
Maid of the Mist president Christopher M. Glynn, through a spokesman, declined to comment, but state officials said they could not throw out the existing Maid contract, which is invalid only if the Maid ceases to deliver the tours.
They insist that rebidding the contract would have slowed the process and put the American tours in jeopardy.
“Our goal was to preserve the Maid of the Mist tours, which are a signature attraction for Western New York, and get the best deal for the taxpayers,” said Matt Wing, a spokesman for the governor.
“The agreement we reached does exactly that, because it includes a $32 million investment from the private sector and increases the State Parks’ share of tour ticket revenue by over $100 million.”
Cuomo – when questioned by a Buffalo News reporter in December – said the agreement between the state and Maid was a “special circumstance.”
State officials consider the boat tour controversy a done deal and are happy to see the Maid of the Mist set sail for decades to come. But MacRae disagreed.
“I don’t think the story’s over on this one yet,” he said.
The full Maid of the Mist agreement, and Hornblower’s letter to Cuomo, can be viewed at http://blogs.buffalonews.com/niagara_views/.