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Maid of the Mist comes up with new excuse

Dutiful cub reporter writes what he's told

Niagara Falls Reporter

March 10, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

A fanciful article that appeared in the Niagara Falls (Ont.) Review last week shows just how desperate Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company officials have become since the Reporter began its series on the secretive process employed to renew their dock lease with the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC).

The article, written by Corey Larocque, mainly quotes Maid of the Mist Vice President Tim Ruddy, who wrote a letter to the Ontario government. It contains no independent attempt to determine whether claims contained in Ruddy's letter are true or not.

"Swapping the Maid of the Mist for a newcomer would cause at least a five-year disruption in the (boat) service ... in Niagara Falls," Larocque tells his readers.

But numerous maritime brokers and shipbuilders contacted by the Reporter over the weekend stated categorically that many excursion vessels in the 300-passenger class are currently on the market. Furthermore, additional boats could easily be built.

Maid of the Mist being hauled down the River road

FALSE CLAIM BY MAID OF THE MIST EXECUTIVE? Maid of the Mist Vice President Tim Ruddy told the Niagara Falls Review that, if a company other than Maid of the Mist provides boat tours below the Falls, their boats would have to be assembled at water's edge - which would cause a disruption in boat service. While the Review's reporter did not bother to investigate this claim, he might have checked his own newspaper files. Here is a picture from the Review - taken on June 8, 1983, showing the arrival of one of the Maid of the Mist's present fleet "inching its way along River Road before being carefully lowered into the river using special cranes." Another boat tour company could do the same thing, obviously, but the Review article scrupulously avoids mentioning that.


Shipbuilders contacted by the Reporter said that a 72-foot, 74-ton vessel with twin 250-horsepower diesel engines and space for 300 standing passengers, all steel, a standard double-deck sightseeing boat, exactly comparable to 300-passenger Maid of the Mist boats, could be built at their shipyard within eight months and transported intact to Niagara Falls, then lowered approximately 165 feet by crane into the water as early as 10 days after completion.

One boat broker, Capt. Laz Mouriz of Key West, Fla., said he could deliver a special glass-bottomed boat in the same time frame.

Mike Grysko of Rio Marine said there may be no need to build new boats.

"There are boats" better and newer than (the Maid of the Mist's 30-year-old steel boats) for sale at 50 to 60 cents on the dollar, he said.

Another broker sent the Reporter 17 offerings.

A search of the Web and calls to national boat liquidators revealed numerous steel boats similar to the Maid of the Mist at asking prices ranging from $275,000 to $750,000.

The whole bogus scare-argument voiced by Ruddy and faithfully transcribed by Larocque centers on whether a new company would want to use 600-passenger boats. The Maid of the Mist fleet consists of two 600-passenger vessels and two that carry 300 passengers.

Since the 600-passenger boats are much wider and since there is standing room only on Maid of the Mist boats, most people get stuck in the middle -- far away from the outside of the boat, where there are the best views.

Six-hundred-passenger boats also take longer to load and unload, and the customer experience is possibly not improved with double the crowd.

In fact, a number of tourism experts are convinced boat-ride figures would be higher if Maid of the Mist owner James Glynn had more and smaller boats on the Canadian side.

A new company could conceivably replicate Glynn's Canadian capacity using 300-passenger boats, and improve the service as well.

The youthful Larocque continues, almost as though he were auditioning for a spot in the Maid of the Mist's public relations department:

"Ruddy's letter said the river's geography creates unique challenges for launching boats on the lower river. Waterfalls at the south and rapids at the north make it impossible to bring new vessels from Lake Erie or Lake Ontario."

The idea of sailing vessels in from one of the Great Lakes is preposterous on its face and had not previously been mentioned by anyone. Here, Larocque allows Ruddy to introduce a red herring clearly meant to distract from the issue of why the NPC granted Maid of the Mist an exclusive 25-year lease worth as much as $500 million without competitive bidding, in direct violation of the agency's own written policy.

Larocque goes on to accuse Ripley Entertainment and Alcatraz Media of "trying to undo an arrangement" Maid of the Mist has with the NPC. He fails to mention that the "arrangement" was a secretive and possibly illegal process whereby NPC Chairman Jim Williams and General Manager John Kernahan excluded other companies from bidding and failed to inform the decision-making commissioners of interest by anyone other than Maid of the Mist in the lease.

This "arrangement" currently is the subject of both an Ontario Integrity Commission investigation and a lawsuit before Ontario Superior Court.

Ruddy goes on fantastically, his nose growing slightly longer with each new dire prognostication, as the eager cub reporter continues to quote him:

"It would take three to four years to build the boats, bring them to the falls and assemble them on site ...

"'There's only enough room on the landing to re-assemble one boat at a time. And it's not safe to do the work during the winter,' (Ruddy said)."

Naturally, this sequence of fact presentation -- especially the laughable too dangerous in winter -- might lead the casual reader to believe that only 600-passenger boats, too large to lower by crane, can be used by the competition.

The facts are simply these: 1,200-passenger boat capacity is what is used now to deliver the attraction in Canada.

And 300-passenger, 72-ton boats can be lowered by crane into the river.

The probable cost to replace Glynn's Canadian fleet might be under $2 million.

The time frame to replace two 600-passenger boats with four 300-passenger boats appears to be eight months, not -- as Ruddy told the gullible Review reporter -- five years.

It stands to reason then that, with only a $2 million boat investment for a lease that generates tens of millions per year for the operator, the NPC could probably do better than the 20 percent of gross revenues Glynn pays, if it were open to competitive bidding.

The credulous Review reporter also might have looked into how large tenders are done. For instance, when a call for tenders is issued, it generally requires service be assumed on a specific date. Anyone bidding usually has to guarantee they will have everything ready, or suffer financial penalties.

This was done with major competitive undertakings, such as when the U.S. National Park Service put boat services out to bid at the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island.

Also, ridiculously, NPC's Williams and Kernahan told Larocque, who by then was functioning mainly as a stenographer, that Ripley's and Alcatraz Media "didn't show any serious interest, have never offered a business plan and don't own any boats."

Ripley Entertainment's interest might be observed in their repeated written requests to be included in the bidding process, which Williams and Kernahan consistently thwarted.

And Alcatraz Media's interest might be seen in their lawsuit filed against the NPC before the Ontario Superior Court, which seeks to have the lease opened to competitive bidding.

Alcatraz's interest might also be observed in the fact that they offered to pay the park at least $3 million more than Glynn.

This money might be handy, since the NPC has lost so much money lately they had to lay off a third of their workforce.

In fact, estimates from tourism industry experts indicate the park could get anywhere from $3 million to $6 million more in rent annually than Glynn is paying. The NPC posted a loss of about $4 million last year.

The boat-tour business is highly competitive, as is shown by the large number of bidders for the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island Cruises and Alcatraz Island.

The list included 16 national tour-boat companies, resulting in a far higher price and better service for these National Parks attractions.

If half of these companies bid, one imagines the NPC may earn enough to go into the black.

Their latest excuse is that no one in the world can get boats into the water.

It is false.

Let's see what excuse Williams, Kernahan, Ruddy or Glynn come up with next.

Almost certainly they will call upon the Review's Corey Larocque, who will publish it no matter how fanciful or desperate it is.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.