Norisle group’s fundraiser begins $18.5 million quest

To refurbish and refit historic steamship for active service

MANITOWANING BAY—It was 40 years ago that the S.S. Norisle sailed into Manitowaning Bay, making the port her permanent berth in retirement and where she has sat ever since, her condition worsening with each passing year.

Eight years ago, the Friends of the Norisle organization was born—a group founded by Manitowaning’s Jean McLennan and dedicated to preserving the beloved steamship that provided ferry service from Tobermory to South Baymouth from 1947 to 1974 before the M.S. Chi-Cheemaun took over. (The group has since been renamed the S.S. Norisle Steamship Society.) The group has worked tirelessly, dedicating volunteer hours and funds to doing what they can to keep the Norisle afloat (and from looking shabby), but recently decided to step up their game, entering into a partnership with Compenso Communications, a communications and government relations firm whose expertise is securing funds in various forms. They also happen to be based in Collingwood, home of the shipbuilding yard where the Norisle was built.

The Compenso team recently met with members of Assiginack staff and council, outlining the strategies and the execution behind seeing the Norisle seaworthy and sailing once again.

Dave Ham, chair of the S.S. Norisle Steamship Society, began the meeting, introducing Paul Bonwick, president of Compenso Communications. Mr. Bonwick noted that his father worked on the building of the Norisle in 1946 and that he himself had worked in the Collingwood shipyards.

Mr. Bonwick, a former MP and municipal councillor, congratulated Assiginack council and the previous councils on seeing the vision of the Steamship Society and lending support over the years. He introduced the team of Abby Stec, now the executive director of the Steamship Society, and Elaine Kelly, executive administrator and an avid marine history buff who hails from England.

Ms. Stec, he explained, has led numerous multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns and will do the same for the Norisle, which needs to raise $18.5 million in funds with “significant private and public buy-in.” The goal set to raise this money is between 18 months and two years which would bring the year to 2017—the same year the municipality is relinquished of its duty to care for the aged steamship. (The province gifted Assiginack with the Norisle once she became decommissioned for service 40 years ago.)

“We are looking for support as well as permission to enable staff to work with us and help in applying for funding,” Mr. Bonwick addressed council.

Ms. Stec gave the presentation to council, explaining that the campaign’s goal is to: “raise the necessary funds to refit the Norisle and return her to service as a heritage passenger steamship on Great Lakes cruises.”

In a feasibility study conducted by the firm EPCG, it was found that there is evidence of a “significant market” being available for multi-day, berthed passenger cruises in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River from mid-May to October with anecdotal evidence showing that specific ports could support a winter restaurant operation aboard the Norisle.

The breakdown of financial requirements is as follows: ship refit, $13.5 million; contingency allowance, $2.7 million (20 percent of overall); shore equipment, $25,000; pre-opening/start-up costs, $440,000; and operating deficiencies, $666,000 for the first two years.

Ms. Stec explained that the Steamship Society and Compenso will work hard to secure major gifts and sponsors, raising the majority of the funds before making the campaign public. Target markets for fundraising include: Ontario residents, specifically from the Golden Horseshoe; Quebec residents, particularly from Montreal; other Canadians; US border states, particularly New York and Chicago (which are priority markets for the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership (OTMP)); US longer-haul markets, particularly those markets which are targeted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and OTMP, such as Boston and Los Angeles; and international markets, particularly Ontario’s priority overseas markets with an interest in historic luxury travel including Germany, the UK and France. Other markets include those with a strong interest in heritage, cruising, Northern Ontario and wilderness adventure; incentive travel markets; those travelling with high-end tour companies; small corporate groups on meetings/getaways; and steamship and steam-related theme groups.

The five potential sources of funding, explained by Ms. Stec, are government, (federal, provincial and municipal), private sector investment, public-private partnerships, potential partners and fundraising and sponsors (in-kind and financial).

Ms. Stec explained that the Norisle has the fact that it is a steamship in its favour as an attraction, along with the heritage of the Great Lakes, smaller passenger numbers, interesting shore excursions and access to smaller ports.

Compenso expects the initial refit to create 102 jobs in Ontario with a price tag of $6.1 million in employment income and $4.5 million in taxes. The Norisle is also expected to create 58 jobs with $2.3 million in employment income and, over 10 years, operations are anticipated to generate over $49 million in spending in the economy, 580 person years of employment and $23 million in employment income.

A four-year projection presented by Ms. Stec shows 1,355 passengers expected with a gross revenue of $4,003,000 and an operating profit of $427,000.

“The business model is strong, it will work, but will take up to two years to get it to stand on its own and be sustainable,” Ms. Stec told the group.

John Coulter, a member of the Steamship Society, spoke of his work on the Seguin in Muskoka, which proved to be sustainable after four years and is “very successful.”

Mr. Bonwick again spoke of the importance of a municipal partnership in terms of staff support and the municipal charitable status. He noted the upcoming 150th anniversary of the country and the funding opportunities that will be made available for heritage projects such as this one.

Reeve Paul Moffat asked about the Norisle refit and where it would take place.

It was explained that it depends on the boat’s substructure as to where it will be refitted.

The business case shows that a larger port, such as Collingwood, would be a better home port for the Norisle, “but at the end of the day, it’s the Friends of the Norisle who make that call, but the business case will really say it.”

Should all go to plan, the Norisle would likely see a summer sailing season of Toronto to Montreal with late summer to fall sailings in Georgian Bay and the North Channel.

“And she’ll be flying the Northern flag and the Northern story,” Ms. Stec said. “She is an ambassador for the North. The Norisle is not stationery—she carries the Northern flag wherever she goes.”

Councillor Leslie Fields questioned the 18 months to two years time frame. “So, in that time, the ship just stays here and hopefully continues to float?” she asked.

“Not necessarily,” Mr. Coulter replied. “There has to be a sufficient appreciation of funds, but we could have a phased-in refit.”

“When I first met with the group they talked about the ship as if she were alive and seeing her today, stepping aboard, she certainly is—she just needs a little bit of waking up,” Ms. Stec said.

Mr. Ham told The Expositor that there have been numerous meetings with Compenso before getting to this stage, ensuring they were a good fit for the Steamship Society.

On the question of whether Manitowaning would be the home port for the Norisle again, “that would probably remain to be seen,” Mr. Ham said. “Originally, it was the intention of council to have the Norisle winter here and Assiginack would benefit a bit from that (in its current berth).” Mr. Ham noted that 40 years ago, 60 foot pilings were driven into the bay alongside the ship and could continue to be used during the winter months.

“It’s an interesting proposition and I certainly hope they’re successful,” Reeve Moffat told The Expositor when contacted following the meeting, calling the campaign “pretty ambitious.”

He explained that while he wishes the group every success, the ship is becoming a liability to the municipality and council would “welcome any opportunity to see it sail out of here.”

“I would love to see it come back as a destination on a cruise,” Reeve Moffat added, but said he was doubtful it would ever winter in Manitowaning. “I just don’t see the economy of scale. It certainly wouldn’t be feasible to run it as an attraction in Manitowaning.”