Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter got a frosty welcome in Yarmouth Wednesday from people protesting the loss of the CAT ferry service.
While being protected by the RCMP, the premier was booed on the streets by area residents upset by his government's decision to cut the subsidy to the high speed CAT ferry that operated between Yarmouth and Maine for more than 10 years.
It was the premier's first visit to the town since the decision to axe the subsidy was made in December, and Bay Ferries Ltd. announced it would no longer run the ferry.
The company wanted at least $6 million from the government in 2010 to keep the CAT ferry going between Yarmouth and the Maine cities of Bar Harbor and Portland
On Wednesday, Dexter met with municipal politicians to talk about the loss of the ferry.
He also used the visit to announce that his government will spend $200,000 to promote Yarmouth and the French Acadian Shore as a tourist destination.
Dexter again defended the decision to kill the ferry subsidy.
"We cannot continue to subsidize services that are not sustainable. I mean, what it actually does is it takes away from your ability to strengthen the economy."
Yarmouth Mayor Phil Mooney wasn't impressed by the premier's stance.
"We need a ferry service," he said. "Up to six operators have been in contact interested in putting a service in for 2011."
The ferry run between Yarmouth and Maine began in 1997. The Nova Scotia government has put $18.9 million into the ferry service since the fall of 2007.
t wasn’t exactly a hero’s welcome when Premier Darrell Dexter arrived in Yarmouth last week to meet with area officials.
Dexter, making just his second trip to Yarmouth in the last year and first since his government stopped subsidizing the Cat ferry, was in town at the invitation of town council for closed meetings with Yarmouth town council and mayors and wardens from the tri-counties.
The premier, an avid basketball fan, surely felt like the Los Angeles Lakers entering the Boston Garden as protesters, brandishing signs and chanting “Dexter must go,” greeted him at town hall and later followed him to the Vanguard office. At least nine RCMP officers waited outside town hall before the premier’s arrival and officers followed him through town keeping watch on protesters.
It’s difficult to overstate the challenges facing the area. Besides the cancellation of the ferry service and the fallout that goes with it, the area is still recovering from last year’s housing crisis, and dwindling lobster prices and a general lack of economic development are also taking a toll. Southwest Nova Scotia has the highest unemployment rate in the province and last month, for the first time, the Yarmouth Food Bank served more than 400 people.
In an interview with the Vanguard, Dexter said his government remains committed to the town and region and efforts to strengthen the area’s economy.
“(It’s about) ensuring that young people in this region have a reason to want to stay and we have put together a board-based team (to help),” he said.
That team, Team West, will cover the area spanning between Liverpool and Annapolis Royal and will focus on finding ways to foster job growth and economic development in existing industries as well as looking at any possible new opportunities. The premier said the group would work with Team Southwest Nova Scotia, an initiative recently announced by the federal government to do similar work.
* Protesters inside Yarmouth town hall. MICHAEL GORMAN PHOTO
Both groups are expected to meet soon and Dexter said Team West will start with $200,000 of the $600,000 saved from the early buyout of Bay Ferries to market the area throughout the Maritimes, adding that those funds won’t take away from other money that could be available.
“What we want is a broad-based economic strategy,” he said. “We are prepared to carry our share of the load, but we want this to be a cooperative matter . . . so that we can build a long-term economic strategy.”
Mayor Phil Mooney, who characterized the meetings with the premier as cordial, said the premier’s announcement fell well short of what he was hoping for and what he believes the area needs, adding that a 2005 tourism study suggests much more funding than $200,000 is required.
“(The study calls for) anywhere from $1.1- to $1.3 million to properly put in a tourism plan in this end of the province,” he said.
Mooney said the discussion with the premier focused on the importance of ferry service to the region as well as other possible economic development opportunities and what the province is willing to do.
The premier said he believes the efforts of his government will eventually help people understand why the short-term pain the area is experiencing now was necessary.
“No matter when the decision (to cancel funding the Cat) got made, there was going to be an issue with it and that’s just the reality of things,” he said. “I believe that this decision, in the long term, will make this community and make this region stronger. And often times, the most difficult decisions are the ones that need to be (made) the most.”
“I don’t have an industry that I can move into Yarmouth,” he said. “But what we do know is there are lots of opportunities out there . . . We would hope that there will be opportunities like (the Daewoo deal in Trenton) for southwest Nova Scotia.”
As for whether or not one of those opportunities could be new ferry service, the premier said it would depend on the business plan. Any business plan must be sustainable, said Dexter, adding that it would most likely fall to Team West to deal with the matter.
“We are prepared to carry our share of the load, but we want this to be a cooperative matter . . . so that we can build a long-term economic strategy.” - Premier Darrell Dexter
“What I’ve said over and over is we can’t take what little money we have for economic development and throw it away . . . (Ferry service) has to be sustainable over the long term . . . We don’t want to be in a position where we are providing operational funding for a ferry.”
“I felt from the beginning anytime anyone is receiving a $12-million subsidy, someone somewhere has got to be saying to themselves, ‘jeez, this is not sustainable.’ I mean, I thought that would have been obvious to folks. So, I must say, I was somewhat surprised that others were surprised.”
Surprised is understating the reaction that reverberated throughout the region at the news of the ferry’s cancellation.
A number of seasonal workers getting ready to come off employment insurance now have no jobs waiting for them. And with Rodd’s announcing that they will attempt to stay the course, at least for now, it would seem that what this area needs more than anything right now is a bit of good news, something to help get through what will certainly be a challenging summer further complicated by a surging loonie and rising gas prices.
The premier said he believes the marketing initiative he announced last week is a good start. He also acknowledged that the area needs particular focus given the circumstances.
“These are the kind of things that we can do in order to . . . provide some glimmer of hope for people,” said Dexter.
“I believe that we owe it to southwest Nova Scotia (to be) paying attention to the issues they have and making investments that make sense for the long-term economic sustainability of the region . . . I don’t think that rural Nova Scotia should be satisfied with just surviving.”