Tobermory entrepreneur seeks partners in MS Norgoma rescue

The M.S. Norgoma rests uneasily in its former berth at the Roberta Bondar Transient Marina in Sault Ste. Marie. The historic vessel has since moved to a more temporary home at the Purvis Shipyard where it remains awaiting its fate.

EAST HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT – The fate of the Norisle sister ship Norgoma rests in the hands of the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula (MNBP) council and staff, as plans to move the historic vessel from its temporary berth in the Purvis shipyard at Sault Ste. Marie hinge upon finding an agreement to allow the ship to secure a new home in Tobermory.

Mike Goman, a real estate professional with 40 years of experience and lifelong links to both Tobermory and Manitoulin, delivered a presentation to the MNBP council on behalf of Real Estate Investors Inc. (TREII). TREII has negotiated an agreement with the City of Sault Ste. Marie to acquire the Norgoma conditional on securing a berth for the vessel in Tobermory—otherwise the future looks grim as the historic ferry could be sold for scrap.

The Expositor caught up with Mr. Goman at his home in Hartford, Connecticut.

Mr. Goman said that he had received a cautious reception when he broached his plans to the council. “It’s a small harbour,” he said. “There is a 20-year waiting list for a slip in the harbour.”

The municipality does not want to reduce the number of slips in their marina and is not interested in reduced revenues. The latter challenge is simple enough, matching the revenue, but the question of maintaining the number of slips requires thinking outside of the box. That’s something Mr. Goman’s experience has him well-suited to tackle.

He is also very familiar with the Tobermory experience, having spent most of his childhood summers there and then operating a dive shop as a college student, later managing a large local resort after college.

In fact, it’s out-of-the-box thinking that led Mr. Goman to consider the idea of a floating coffee shop. Mr. Goman and his business partner of 35 years, a Tobermorry doctor, own and operate the Sweet Shop and adjacent coffee shop in Tobermory.

“Our challenge is that the coffee shop is too small,” said Mr. Goman. “It’s only about 600 square feet and we are trying to figure out how to expand it.”

Mr. Goman had travelled on the Chi-Cheemaun precursors as a child; both the Norgoma and the Norisle did service as car and passenger ferries before the current ferry arrived on the scene and the two boats went into retirement.

The Norgoma spent the next several years as a tourist attraction/restaurant at the Sault Ste. Marie Bondar Marina until the not-for-profit owners were no longer able to keep up their end of the deal. The city finally pulled the plug on the operation after a number of years subsidizing it to the tune of $25,000. The Norgoma was then towed to the Purvis Marine yards near Algoma Steel.

“I called the City of Sault Ste. Marie and said ‘I will give you a dollar for it’,” he recalled. Negotiations ensued and Mr. Goman was able to secure an agreement to take over the vessel contingent on his being able to secure a berth in Tobermory.

As for his experience with MNBP, Mr. Goman said “they have been great.” He is currently working with staff to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Mr. Goman has suggested a dock placed alongside the Norgoma at berth in the harbour could replace the slips displaced by the historic ferry. The concept would shrink the breadth of the harbour by 50 feet, however, so there are a number of factors to consider. But complex deals in commercial real estate are Mr. Goman’s forte, as is persistence, so hope remains afloat for the Norgoma.

Mr. Goman’s interest is the sundeck of the ferry, which would make an outstanding venue for the coffee shop with a brilliant view of the harbour. He is currently seeking partners for the remainder of the space and there has been considerable interest, not the least of which is Sault College, which would like to have the vessel space for trades classes.

“They told me they could easily get the engines running,” laughed Mr. Goman. “They said ‘you really can’t kill those old diesels’.” Mr. Goman said he declined that offer as it is somewhat out of scope for the plan.

“I suggested three options for the town: one, my partner and I can buy it and operate it; second, we could move it and then donate it to a not-for-profit who we could enter into a long-term lease with for the coffee shop or third, we could move it and donate it to the MNBP,” he said.

There are a number of parks offices that could be moved into a refurbished Norisle, freeing up space in the harbourfront core that would be much better utilized by other items.

The clock is ticking on the offer, noted Mr. Goman, who hopes to have things nailed down over the next couple of months. In any event, some kind of agreement on berthing the vessel will be needed before anything else can proceed.

Mr. Goman said he does not want to spend $30,000 to $40,000 to end up not being able to go through with the deal. “This is a half-million-dollar project,” he said.

One of the other challenges Mr. Goman faces is a community that is just about touristed out, with parking issues and challenges generated by large numbers of people trying to cross the roads with summer traffic.

“I get that,” said Mr. Goman, but having operated a business in the community for decades, he said he knows the tourist business can be very cyclical. “There is an ebb and flow to this,” he said. “When diving was a hit things were very busy, then it grew and plateaued. You don’t see it go up forever.”

As for the S.S. Norisle which has been a controversial issue itself on Manitowaning’s waterfront in recent years, the question is still up in the air. 

The Norisle, which covered the Tobermory to Manitoulin ferry route from 1947 until the Chi-Cheemaun took over in 1974, was purchased by Assiginack for $1 not long after it was taken out of service. The Norisle then served as a floating museum and tourist attraction in Manitowaning for more than 30 years but never really lived up to the expectations as a tourist draw.

There were plans to convert the ship into a heritage cruise ship and a group, S.S. Norisle Steamship Society, was formed to move that project forward. Those plans were derailed in 2015, when the municipal council of the day withdrew its support for a funding application for the project.

The Township of Assiginack had offered the vessel to be sunk as a dive site in Tobermory before the last election, but that plan was halted when the new council came in. The Society had initiated a lawsuit that eventually saw the town settle for $45,000, the cost to the Society of removing asbestos from the vessel. 

“We are still engaged in our efforts,” said John Coulter, spokesperson for the Steamship Society. “It has been very challenging to have meetings, as you could imagine during this pandemic. Most meetings have been put on hold.”

Still, the Society remains hopeful. “We are quite positive,” said Mr. Coulter. “We are still in the process and we have a lot of interested people.”

A preliminary assessment of the Norisle in 2019 had determined that the vessel is still quite sound.