Updated: Island Ferries top pick in search for Nanaimo-to-Vancouver ferry operator

NANAIMO – A technical advisory group has chosen Island Ferries as a preferred proponent.

Island Ferry Services is the top pick to run a passenger ferry service in the Harbour City, but the company still has another test to pass.

The City of Nanaimo, Nanaimo Port Authority and Snuneymuxw First Nanaimo announced Friday that Island Ferries is a ‘preliminary’ preferred proponent for a passenger ferry service between Nanaimo and Vancouver, and a further review of the company will be done to determine its ability to provide a ferry service.

If successful, Island Ferries will negotiate a lease with the port authority for its cruise ship terminal.

It’s been more than a year since the city and port authority agreed to explore the private market’s interest in running a ferry service in Nanaimo. Three companies initially answered a request for expressions of interest, including Riverside Marine (V2V Vacations), Clipper Navigation and Island Ferries, and a technical advisory group was struck to analyze proposals, such as the companies’ finances and ability to run the service.

Clipper Navigation pulled out of the process in September, citing the lack of a good business case.

Island Ferries, which previously held a lease with the City of Nanaimo to run its service on the south industrial waterfront, emerged as the preferred proponent, although Riverside Marine isn’t out of the picture yet.

Bernie Dumas, chief executive officer and president of the port authority, said Riverside had more of a tourism model, whereas the advisory group indicated Island Ferries’ presentation was more toward a transit model, which is what the city, port and Snuneymuxw has always been looking for.

“Riverside is still there and based on the [technical advisory group’s] review that they told us to talk to Island Ferries first because it appears they have a stronger package … that meets our requirements. If for some reason this coming review is not positive we’ll go talk to Riverside,” said Dumas, who noted the port has a history with passenger ferries – two over the last few decades and both failed, so they are “a little bit more sensitive to it” and want to make sure a carrier is found this time that will provide a transit model and a long-term service.

Ernst and Young has been hired to do the financial and technical review with Island Ferries, which is expected to cost $25,000. It adds onto a bill for the technical group which was close to $40,000.

Bill Corsan, the city’s manager of real estate, said the level of financial information from all of the proponents was a good first brush but to do proper due diligence, the technical advisory group recommended digging a little deeper into the financial background of whichever firm is chosen.

Dave Marshall, Island Ferries’ director of operations, isn’t sure of the scope of the review, adding his company was required to provide evidence of financial backing and has done so. Island Ferries is delighted to be identified as a preferred proponent and “it’s been a long time coming,” he said, although he also expressed concern the process to figure out who the city, port and Snuneymuxw should talk to has taken 13 months.

“We thought the intent of the [request for expression of interest] was to identify a preferred proponent and to get into lease negotiations so we have expected to start lease negotiations sooner rather than later, but it now looks like those conversations will not take place for some additional, undefined period of time,” he said.

Given the choice of negotiating a lease for land with the city or port, Island Ferries has chosen the port. Marshall said his company likes that the necessary infrastructure is on the port site, but there are a number of issues to work out, not the least of which is the extent to which it can or can’t operate while a cruise ship is in the terminal.

The next step is for the City of Nanaimo, Snuneymuxw First Nation and port authority to ratify the recommendation.