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Absent Glynn-bias, competitive bidding may make Maid of the Mist tours better in Canada

Niagara Falls Repoerter

March 02, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Stand on guard.

Oh Canada.

For somehow they always seem to negotiate a sweetheart deal with an American businessman, James V. Glynn.

For decades, the Ontario-controlled Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) has leased the public's boat docks in the lower Niagara just below the falls at a cheaper price than what the public should get.

They have done it for Glynn.

Visitors from around the world are deprived so that the favored Glynn gets the boating monopoly on the lower river from the falls to the Whirlpool Rapids.

While the quid pro quo for this favored status is not yet known, it is a fact that Glynn pays about $4 million less per year than what other companies have offered after learning of the secret terms of his low-rent lease when they were exposed for the first time by the Niagara Falls Reporter.

Other entertainment and boat tour companies will now get a chance to bid because the Ontario government has ordered the NPC to put Glynn's boat tour lease out to bid.

It may mean big financial gains for the NPC.

According to sources in the boat tour industry, Glynn's rent, which is presently 15 percent of gross sales, should be more than double that.

On top of that, the total number of tours sold each year may wind up much higher than the 1.8 million tours Glynn reports.

While Glynn's numbers may be accurate, insiders say he may max out at 1.8 million riders, since he operates only during limited hours with only two boats.

Glynn pays about $3 million in rent.

Doubling the rent to a more competitive 30 percent, and presuming the same number of riders, would add $3 million to the NPC coffers. That would cure 75 percent of the parks system's annual $4 million deficit.

Upping the number of riders to 2.5 million -- which insiders suggest is a probable minimum if there were more boats and longer hours -- would bring in another $2 million, which would bring the NPC out of the red and into the black.

Strangely, NPC officials, such as NPC Chairman Archie Katzman, have made it obvious they would prefer to see Glynn keep his low-rent lease rather than see another company pay millions more.

No one has done more for Glynn than Katzman.

Two years ago, Katzman failed to tell most of the NPC commissioners that there were other bidders willing to pay more than Glynn. Katzman also led the charge to secretly reduce Glynn's rent by more than $1 million per year. It was going to drop from 15 percent to a sliding scale going down to 5.5 percent, while the NPC was (and is) losing millions and had to lay off a third of its workforce.

One-time Glynn ally Jim Williams, the former NPC chairman who resigned in January, said the Glynn-biased bidding process the NPC is conducting does not pass the smell test.

Before he resigned, he asked then-minister of tourism Monique Smith to take the boat tour bid decision away from the NPC and give it to an impartial panel. Smith refused. Williams quit.

A week or so later, Smith herself was transferred and became minister of intergovernmental affairs. New Tourism Minister Michael Chan knows little or nothing of Niagara Falls or the Glynn dealings.

With the boat tour bidding process ordered by Smith to be accomplished by June, Chan can claim plausible deniability, leaving it all to Katzman and the NPC to conduct what he "assumes" will be a "fair" process, saying that was Smith's plan, after all.

These clever ladies and gents even appointed -- in what is perhaps an Orwellian twist -- a "fairness commissioner," one Howard Grant, who apparently is not allowed to talk to the press and has virtually no authority.

Besides Katzman's overt pronouncements and back-door dealings, NPC General Manager John Kernahan said on CKTB radio that Glynn is the right choice. And NPC commissioner Vince Kerrio, suddenly emerging as a Glynn cheerleader, campaigned to have Bill Windsor of Atlanta -- Glynn's fiercest competitor and critic -- disqualified.

Meanwhile, one of the main points being overlooked in all this is that if the NPC designs the Request For Proposals to merely replicate Glynn's present boat tour, it will not only give Glynn an edge, but there will be little chance at improving Glynn's mediocre and self-serving tours.

Glynn provides the public with only one type of tour -- a standing-only, 15-minute tour alongside the American Falls and slightly into the mist of the Horseshoe Falls.

Glynn's "fleet," consisting of two 600-capacity boats, does not have seats, handicap access or bathrooms.

From the middle of the boats, where most passengers stand, if any of them happen to be shorter than six-foot-four they will see very little of the shoreline and can only look up and see a portion of the falls. Their main view is the back of someone's head.

Smaller boats with seats would give tourists a better view and a more elegant ride.

Additionally, Glynn operates only open-deck boats. Tourists, provided with flimsy, disposable raincoats, get soaked by the mist when they approach the Horseshoe Falls. In May and October, many tourists choose not to take the drenching ride.

At least one enclosed boat would enhance the Niagara Falls experience, increase bottom-line revenues for the NPC and extend the season.

Also, unlike most boat tour operators, Glynn takes no reservations. Tourists wait in line for a 15-minute boat ride, sometimes for hours.

Potential bidder Bill Windsor explained that people in town for a limited time should not have to waste precious time in a long line.

Windsor said, "The fact that (through our planned reservation system) we will eliminate waiting in line for hours should receive a standing ovation from every merchant in Niagara Falls."

For nearly 40 years, Glynn has had a monopoly on boating in the lower river from the falls to the beginning of the Whirlpool Rapids -- about three miles of river. But Glynn only takes tourists on about a half-mile journey, going south from the docks to the nearby falls and back, ignoring the two-and-a-half miles of navigable water north of his docks.

An hour-long, downriver tour, heading true north, as the lordly river flows, traversing beneath shining skies the whole three miles of navigable river, is possible. Under the Rainbow Bridge, along the gorge, in deep, safe navigable waters, along the shore, some of the oldest botanicals in the northeast can be seen, along with some of the best examples of the geological history of the world -- 425 million years of layered bedrock on the steep sides of the gorge.

Heading true north, under a canopy of ancient red oaks, hemlock and 800-year-old dwarf cedars, one sees a startling and changing view of the Niagara as it goes from deep, slow water to the shallow, fierce Whirlpool Rapids, and then to the deep, swirling whirlpool itself -- the largest in the world -- beyond where the Maid of the Mist boats could travel.

Additionally, along the gorge are hiking trails. These trails wind at the bottom of the gorge, allowing tourists to walk along the lower river where giant pines and maples grow. These wide, easy-to-walk trails are largely unused because they are hard to access at the bottom of the gorge. With the simple construction of floating docks, tourists could have the option of being dropped off at the trail's head and could walk along the Whirlpool Rapids and back and catch another Maid of the Mist boat back later. The lower river exploration tour could reap millions for the NPC and enhance the tourist's broad domain of experiences.

Under Glynn's monopolistic control, however, not only is walking these trails out of the question, but there isn't even a boat ride that explores any of the beautiful lower river north of his docks.

Another concept wholly ignored is night tours. Glynn claims the lowering of the river by the water's diversion into turbines at night for hydroelectric generation makes it impossible to launch boats at night. The water is lowered, of course, but the change in water elevation is not more than changes at high and low tides in the ocean. The lower Niagara is more than 150 feet deep where Glynn docks after nighttime water diversion. Night tours with proper lighting and an experienced captain would not only enhance NPC revenues but encourage overnight hotel stays. Imagine the beauty and sublimity of a tour by the illuminated falls and then, under moonlight, along the winding, lordly river, below the gorge, beneath bending skies, on a soft, warm summer night.

But Glynn prefers to close early.

Part of the reason Glynn does not want to stay open later -- when crowds thin -- is that he might not be able to fill his 600-capacity boats and doesn't want a "skinny" tour. Still, why shouldn't 100 tourists, or even 50, get a chance to see the lower river at 7 p.m. in September?

If the monopoly weren't so lucrative for Glynn -- with his low rent and low costs, with his literally tens of millions of revenue coming in during a two-and-a-half month peak season -- he or any normal boat tour operator would be glad to take 50 paying customers on a boat tour almost anytime.

Glynn has gotten used to taking only the fat of the land. What we have is a kind of primitive boat service born of monopoly, with new ideas easily discarded.

As potential bidder Tim Parker of Ripley Entertainment said, "In this day and age, to be able to get to the bottom of the falls and actually feel the presence and the thunder and the roar is an absolute attraction in itself. But how do you deliver the thrill? Do I think delivering that in a 15-minute ride, on a 15-year-old steel boat is the proper way to deliver it? In this day and age, we have come a long way in attractions, and the way we deliver services to guests. Can it be delivered better? Of course."

This concept -- which would bring Niagara Falls boat tours into the modern age -- should be reflected in the NPC's request for proposals.

Because of Glynn-bias, there is a good chance it will not.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.