South Baymouth merchants stress ferry problems are a Manitoulin-wide issue

SOUTH BAYMOUTH—If the whole of Manitoulin Island thinks they won’t be affected by the Chi-Cheemaun’s delay in service, they had better think again. This is the message coming from the businesspeople of South Baymouth after an impromptu ferry dock rally last Friday afternoon.

Under normal circumstances, driving into South Baymouth one week before the Chi-Cheemaun begins it course across Georgian Bay for another sailing season one would find the little community buzzing with excitement. Stores are being scrubbed clean after a long winter, employees hired and shelves stocked—but this year it’s different.

This reporter drove into South Baymouth on Friday afternoon and saw nary a soul, that is until the ferry’s ramp came into view. There over 50 citizens, including reeves and mayors, had shown up to make their views known to the federal and provincial governments via this newspaper and its online resources and to send a message: the federal government had better smarten up, work with the provincial government and fix the docking fenders fast, otherwise their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of many other Islanders, are at stake.

What started as a phone call to Tehkummah Reeve Brown Thursday night for a photo op on the ferry dock (“Oh no, it shouldn’t be me,” the reeve said. “It should be the businesspeople of South Baymouth.”), culminated with the large group thanks to a chain of phone calls and Faceboook messages, including a call out from the Facebook group ‘Action to get the Chi-Cheemaun running’ and reposted on the popular Manitoulin Life Facebook page.

Despite rumours that the ferry isn’t sailing due to the dropping ridership or a lack of money, the problem comes down to record low water levels and the fact that the dock’s fenders now sit too high (to match with the corresponding apparatus that is part of the Chi-Cheemaun’s hull configuration which make for efficient, smooth and safe docking when the ship pulls into the South Baymouth and Tobermory ferry landings). Reeve Gary Brown pointed through a gap between the ferry ramp and the dock to show the problem. The fenders are actually three large panels of a rare African (extremely tough) wood that jut out from the dock. Whereas most boat fenders are rubber, this wood is needed so as not to scuff up the hull of the vessel, the reeve explained. The current fenders were only installed four years ago.

“The good people of Manitoulin have rallied!” Reeve Brown called out to the crowd, encouraging everyone present to write to MP Carol Hughes and MPP Michael Mantha. “Let’s keep our businesses alive and talk to the government to keep the ball rolling.”

“The good people of Manitoulin have rallied!” Reeve Brown called out to the crowd, encouraging everyone present to write to MP Carol Hughes and MPP Michael Mantha. “Let’s keep our businesses alive and talk to the government to keep the ball rolling.”

“For the whole Island, the running of the ferry is important,” he continued. “Whatever the cost they’re saving is at the cost of Manitoulin.”

Nathalie Gara-Boivin and Alain Harvey, proprietors of the Auberge Inn in Providence Bay, are hosts of the ‘Action to get the Chi-Cheemaun running’ Facebook page and a driving force behind a letter writing campaign and petition. Template letters to Minister of Transport Denis Lebel are available on this site, as well as a link to the petition that has been started.

Like the rest of the people gathered at the dock, Ms. Gara-Boivin has major concerns with a late start date. “We already have a short summer season,” she said. “We get a lot of international people coming to Auberge who use the Chi-Cheemaun. If they don’t have an easy, accessible way to get here…”

She noted that having a business on Manitoulin already comes with its challenges, such as weather and the economy, and that she and her partner rely on the Chi-Cheemaun to bring them business.

“The federal government talks a lot about their action plan to stimulate job growth and the economy, but by not investing that $300,000 (the projected cost of the fender problem) it’s an inaction plan.”

[box font=”play” fontsize=”14″ float=”left” head=”Vote Now!”][polldaddy poll=7078334][/box]Ms. Gara-Boivin pointed to all the “mom and pop” shops across the Island. “If the government doesn’t spend that money, they’ll destroy this Island and this economy.”

She brightened at talk of the Facebook group. “We had 350 people join in two days,’ she shared. “Businesses have been posting letters, and we’ve had an interview with the CBC. If we don’t get an answer, we’ll be right back here Friday (May 3, the day the ferry was set to sail).”

In the warmth of the ferry terminal, a few of South Baymouth’s proprietors gathered, Eric Stillwaugh among them. Mr. Stillwaugh owns and operates the Huron Motor Lodge, a motel that was established in 1932 by his family.

“We’ve always been a seasonal business,” he said quietly, noting that 80 percent of his family’s business relies on boat traffic.

The Huron Motor Lodge employs approximately five people to staff the motel, which sees five months of occupancy (which equals to three full months of ‘no vacancies.’)

“It’s not just people losing here, but people losing faith,” Mr. Stillwaugh said, noting that as if the ferry didn’t have enough problems (the loss of ridership as highway access to Northern Ontario has been improved), people considering it less than dependable may just expand on the decrease in ridership.

“It’s always been dependable, missing very few days due to bad weather—I am worried,” he added.

“Apparently the cost (to reposition the fenders) is $500,000 and will take six weeks time—that would mean the middle of June,” Mr. Stillwaugh continued. “This could mean a lot of businesses short staffed because employees will have had to look elsewhere for work.”

“Apparently the cost (to reposition the fenders) is $500,000 and will take six weeks time—that would mean the middle of June,” Mr. Stillwaugh continued. “This could mean a lot of businesses short staffed because employees will have had to look elsewhere for work.”

“I’m just hopeful it will get going and that the governments will get it together to get the ferry running.”

Nancy Leeson is the face of the Wigwan Gift Shop, undoubtedly South Baymouth’s longest running business at close to 100 years old, with Ms. Leeson at the helm for 42 of those years.

“We’re a destination for the Chi-Cheemaun,” she said bluntly. “That’s the only thing this town offers. They are coming here to catch the Chi-Cheemaun—that’s the only reason.”

Like almost everyone else in South Baymouth, Ms. Leeson’s schedule is in synch with the ferry’s. “A cut in the season will probably devastate us. If it starts in June, we’ll have lost a month and a long weekend.”

“Most of the businesses here have sat all winter with no business and with taxes, water, hydro and sewer to pay,” Ms. Leeson added.

The Wigwam Gift Shop employs four full-time staff and six part-time. While three full-time staff would have normally started by now, Ms. Leeson is putting all plans on hold until she gets an answer on the Chi-Cheemaun’s start.

“If I’m not getting the traffic, I can’t pay,” she put it simply. “South Baymouth will be the one to suffer the most and there’s nothing we can do. And if anyone thinks they’re not going to suffer, they’re wrong,” she addressed the rest of Manitoulin.

Ms. Leeson said she couldn’t understand why the general public and the businesses were not told there was a problem until two weeks before the ferry was scheduled to begin. “No on is answering this question and I would like an answer.”

“It’s a definitely possibility that all these employees will not be back,” she said of her staff. “And what are they going to do?”

As for her orders, two have arrived so far, but the rest she has placed on hold, thanking the caring companies she works with.

“When the Chi-Cheeman doesn’t run on a rough day, I’m lucky if four people walk in,” Ms. Leeson shared. “We’re a destination for the Chi-Cheemaun, that’s all I can say.”

Ingrid Blay has operated the On the Bay Bed and Breakfast for the past seven years. Like the Huron Motor Lodge, the majority of her guests get to her via the ferry.

“Every time I’m speaking with potential guests, it’s always hand in hand with the ferry—it’s a part of the experience,” she said of the ferry’s appeal. “The experience of coming on the boat adds to the journey.”

Ms. Blay said she was concerned for the cyclist tourists, which are becoming greater and greater in numbers and for whom the ferry plays a large role in getting them to Manitoulin. She noted the hard work groups like Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates have done in getting the shoulders along Highway 6 from South Baymouth paved for cyclists. Ms. Blay already has bookings for the scheduled Manitoulin Passage Ride on June 8 and 9 when cyclists from the Bruce Peninsula take the ferry to Manitoulin, meet with other cyclists and share the road along Highway 6. “Do we phone our guests and tell them our potential problems?” Ms. Blay asked. “We don’t want to scare them away.”

Brian Willoughby has double the trouble if the ferry doesn’t run as the landlord of Big Buck cottage rentals and the proprietor of Willoughby Trucking. This would have been his 22nd year on the first sailing of the Chi-Cheemaun with one of his trucks. He uses the ferry three times a week—six sailings.

Mr. Willoughby noted that 90 percent of his guests use the ferry to get to his cottage resort, and while he’s a smaller operation at four cottages, it’s still going to hurt his bottom line.

“It’s my feeling that they made a big mistake spending all that money on that survey and not on the docks,” he allowed, referencing the ridership and marketing study the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) is currently undertaking.

Mr. Willoughby said it was no secret to many in South Baymouth that there was a problem with the fenders by the end of the 2012 sailing season and that his community is anticipating the worst.

“It’s all hearsay,” he said of the news and the difference in stories. “We don’t know what’s for sure and what isn’t. It could have been handled differently—there needs to be a change in top management, that’s for sure.”

To drive around to get to his destinations in southwestern Ontario will mean time and money. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the trucker added. “Maybe I’ll just quit altogether.”

Lori Leeson is employed by her mother-in-law Nancy Leeson, and operates the Wigwam’s take-out and ice cream stand.

“Without the ferry, I’d be out of a job and South Baymouth is going to be a ghost town,” she said.

“Without the ferry, I’d be out of a job and South Baymouth is going to be a ghost town,” she said.

“It doesn’t just affect us, it affects the whole Island,” Ms. Leeson echoed the sentiments of her fellow townspeople.

At Carol’s and Earl’s Restaurant, all was quiet except for the sounds of the Weather Network playing in the background. Carol and Earl Hunter were set to mail a letter to the Minister of Transport, thanks to the Auberge Inn template, when this reporter walked in. Mr. Hunter, too, said he knew about the problem in the fall and, like everyone else, is worried about their business. For the winter months, Carol’s and Earl’s is open Friday through Sunday, but once the ferry starts, it’s seven days a week and it’s a push to make enough money to pay the hydro bills for the rest of the year, Mr. and Mrs. Hunter observed.

Across the street, Robert Brown was at his usual post behind the counter at Carl’s Trading Post. Mr. Brown said he keeps thinking of all the hard work the late MPP John Lane and MP Dr. Maurice Foster put into getting the Chi-Cheemaun sailing 39 years ago.

“John Lane and Bill Davis (Ontario premier) were very instrumental,” he added, recalling a visit to Expo ‘86 in Vancouver and there, on new IMAX technology, was a larger than life video of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry for all the world to see. A proud moment for Mr. Brown. “That just shows how it took hold of the province,” he added.

“All that work and to have something so small get in the way,” he shook his head. “The people that work on it, use it—it’s a big part of the Manitoulin economy.”

Mr. Brown called the delay “gross negligence” on behalf of the federal government.

He too worries that the rest of Manitoulin is unaware of the problems a delay will cause. He spoke of numerous conversations with tourists stopping for gas at his pumps who said they were on their way to Meldrum Bay and points west.

“The longer it’s out, the harder it is to get things going again,” Mr. Brown surmised. “I just hope for the best.”

Alicia McCutcheon