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New firm to run Maid boats in Canada; Will take over in '14; future unclear till then

Two years from now, tourists in Canada will still be able to board a boat going to the foot of Niagara Falls -- though for the first time in well over a century it will not be operated by the iconic Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co.

A California-based outfit that runs ferries to Ellis Island in New York City and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay will do the job, instead.

American tourists, meanwhile, may be up the river without a ferry.

Canadian officials Wednesday awarded a 30-year boat-launching lease beginning in 2014 to Hornblower Cruises and Events, which plans to upgrade ferry facilities on the Canadian shore near the falls.

"As a result of this decision, our business, with a 165-year history of service to tourists from around the world, may soon come to an end," Maid of the Mist President Christopher M. Glynn said in a statement.

Glynn went as far as to say it was uncertain whether a boat tour would operate in Niagara Falls, Ont., this year.

Hornblower will play a role in determining the future of the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co., which for decades has leased a spit of land in Ontario below the falls to store American and Canadian Maid of the Mist boats.

No such land for storage facilities exists on the American side, and Niagara Parks Commission Interim Chairwoman Janice Thomson said any agreement with Maid of the Mist would be negotiated by the new company and submitted to the Parks Commission on the Canadian side for approval.

"The Niagara Parks Commission and the new contract winner must work quickly with Maid of the Mist to hammer out a fair agreement to allow access to critical infrastructure so world-class tours can continue without interruption from the American side of the Falls," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has urged Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to preserve that American access.

Canadian officials were giddy about the planned upgrades Hornblower will make to its top Falls attraction, but the decision was met in America with shock and sadness for a company that has deep roots in the international tourist destination.

"I wish Hornblower congratulations [but] I'm just disappointed because I think the Maid of the Mist brand is so widely recognized around the world and has been represented by such a reputable company for many decades," said John Percy, president of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "I hate to see that relationship come to an end on the Canadian side."

The Maid of the Mist will be allowed to operate its signature boat tours in the United States and Canada if it wishes to do so for the next two summers. It holds a month-to-month lease in Canada and a 40-year lease in New York.

U.S. officials are scrambling to secure a long-term presence for the company.

"Obviously we have a very strong interest in there being a tour boat operating on the U.S. side," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "We're all going to be putting our heads together over the course of the next several days and weeks to chart a course forward."

Much speculation has focused on whether the company could build an American boat storage facility near the falls. Such a project would presumably need approval from the New York State Parks office, whose officials said in a statement it would be "premature to speculate" about future options.

State Parks officials affirmed the validity of its 40-year contract with the Maid of the Mist Co., which was signed in 2002 with no public notice or bidding. State officials had argued that since the Maid of the Mist was the only company in a position to offer boat rides from Niagara Falls State Park, it did not need to seek competitive proposals for the boat tour license.

More land for storage at the foot of the Niagara Gorge exists farther north on the Niagara River, though any ferry boat traveling from Lewiston would have to compete with the strong current of the Whirlpool Rapids.

The Maid of the Mist tour company, which has called Niagara Falls its home since the mid-1800s, also could opt to halt its tours for the next two summers, costing Niagara Parks income.

It's also uncertain whether the new company will use the Maid of the Mist name. Thomson, the Niagara Parks Commission chairwoman, said a branding process would begin soon, though the Glynn family has applied for trademarks for its Maid of the Mist brand.

Canadian officials were excited about the change.

"This marks the beginning of a new era for all of us," Thomson said. "Now, the experience will be better than ever and enjoyed by even more people around the world."

That experience will continue to feature two Canadian boats that each hold 599 passengers, though Thomson said the new boats would be environmentally friendly and would allow more space for tourists.

The tour rates will be about the same as the Maid of the Mist, Thomson said, and can only be changed with Niagara Parks Commission approval.

Hornblower, based in San Francisco, also will rebuild an incline with elevators and shuffle people to the attraction in a tram. Once tourists get to the boat area, they can stand on a dockside observation deck or enjoy food and beverages concessions.

The Parks Commission also stressed the company was chosen for its marketing abilities and family-friendly nature. Hornblower 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. Minutes after the announcement, it launched a Niagara Falls Gorge Boat Tour section on its website that specified tours would begin in spring 2014.

The 30-year lease will net the Parks Commission $60 million over the first five years, though officials said it received higher bids. Three American and three Canadian companies submitted bids. Officials declined to reveal the specifics of those bids.

The Canadian lease held by the Maid of the Mist was called into question by a former Niagara Parks commissioner because the launching rights were never put out to bid. The Parks Commission had never met publicly before 2010, and a political firestorm threw open the bidding process last year.

"As long as the process was fair, I'm elated at the news," said former Niagara Parks Commissioner Bob Gale, who helped force the open bidding process. "I've been vindicated."

Canadian vindication contrasted with American uncertainty.

"It is going to be quite interesting," Percy said, "to see what happens."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com