T his year, like so many other years before it, Maid of the Mist Corp. helped mark the unofficial start of spring in Western New York and Southern Ontario by lowering its fleet of boats into the lower Niagara River on Friday.

The company has been preparing for tourism seasons much the same way since launching its first steamboat back in 1846.

And while some argue that’s too long for any one company to have a virtual lock on one of the region’s premiere tourist attractions, representatives say the Maid of the Mist’s lengthy record of success and safety has earned it the right to continue to serve as the one and only operator of boat tours beneath mighty Niagara Falls.

“History means something to us,” said Tim Ruddy, vice president of marketing for the Maid of the Mist Corp. “It may not mean anything to some people, but it means something to us.”

The run-up to the 2009 season has been one of the more controversial periods in the company’s history. A pair of vendors have asserted that they, too, should have a chance to bid on lease agreements related to the tour boat operation. Those agreements have come under fire from critics who question their terms and the way they were negotiated by parks officials in both the U.S. and Canada.

Through it all, Ruddy says his company has continued to focus on the task at hand — keeping passengers safe while providing them with a quality experience.

“For us, it’s very much business as usual,” Ruddy said. “We’re extremely confident that we’ll be operating for another 100 years.”

Interested operators at the dock

Business as usual is exactly what Atlanta businessman William Windsor says is wrong with the Maid of the Mist’s operation. Windsor and his son, who owns a tour-ticket company known as Alcatraz Media, have taken legal action in an effort to open for bid a process that has historically involved just one applicant — Maid of the Mist owner James Glynn.

Given the opportunity, the Windsors say they could run a more efficient and profitable business while offering a better rate of return for taxpayers who subsidize parks operations in both countries. The Windsors aren’t the only ones interested in running ferry boats near the Falls. Ripley Entertainment of Canada has made inquiries as well.

Ruddy says Maid of the Mist is uniquely qualified to continue to offer what amounts to one of the most unique services in the world. He says offering tours on the lower Niagara River at the base of the Falls requires more than simply dropping a few boats into the water. He argues that actually getting boats down to the river is tricky business in itself as it is nearly impossible to deliver a boat by water with the Horseshoe Falls to the south and the Niagara River rapids to the north. He contends that a new vendor would be forced to assemble boats in one location and re-assemble them at the river’s edge, a process that could literally take years to accomplish and one that would likely result in delays in service.

Above all, Ruddy said, Maid of the Mist offers an experienced staff with a proven record of safety. To date, there have been no serious accidents involving Maid of the Mist boats.

“It’s a very safe operation,” Ruddy said.

Windsor calls such assertions pure nonsense and says he has been dealing with several tour boat companies who say they could provide him with the vessels he needs in a timely fashion.

“If I could put a boat up there by April, I’d have a boat up there by April,” Windsor said.

Going to the government

The Windsors have for months pressed for more transparency in dealings between Maid of the Mist and the people who set the parameters of its operation, namely officials from the New York State Office of Parks and the Niagara Falls Parks Commission in Canada.

They have asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to review a 25-year extension to a property rights agreement granted by the Niagara Falls Parks Commission. The agreement covers a small strip of land on the Canadian side where the Maid docks and stores its boats. In return for access to the land, Maid of the Mist makes lease payments to the Parks Commission. Without the lease, Maid of the Mist would essentially have a fleet without a port.

“This is citizen-owned property that you’ve got people running like it’s their own deal and that’s not how the world works,” William Windsor said. “This is government land and government’s not supposed to work that way. That’s the bottom line.”

In New York, the Windsors filed a letter of protest with the state Comptroller’s Office, arguing that a 40-year lease extension — the longest ever authorized by state parks officials — should have been voided in favor of a formal bidding process. State Parks officials have said that the extension was granted in 2002 without a formal bid because the Maid of the Mist is considered a “sole source provider” due to its exclusive land agreement with Canada. As noted in a response to the Windsor filing by Maid of the Mist attorney Marc Brown, under New York State Finance Law, agencies are not required to seek bids in situations where no other bidder could possibly render the service in question.

A copy of the 2002 lease extension obtained by Windsor shows that Maid of the Mist pays 4 percent of its gross revenues to state parks while receiving 75 percent of the admission fees to the Observation Tower at Niagara Falls State Park. Windsor believes another operator could offer New York state a better deal than that.

Ruddy declined to comment on the terms of either of the company’s lease agreements, but did note a pre-existing legal history between the Windsor family and Maid of the Mist. In 2008, following a court battle in Atlanta, Windsor and his companies were barred from selling tickets to the boat tour online and ordered to cover the Maid of the Mist’s legal costs.

Windsor says he will go to court again if necessary to challenge the state’s assessment, arguing other companies should have the right to operate ferry service beneath the Falls because the area is shared jointly by the U.S. and Canada under long-standing agreements.

“It’s the law,” Windsor said. “It’s what’s fair and it’s what’s right.”

The Parks’ Maid men

New York State Parks maintains that they did what was right in granting the 2002 extension. A March 24 letter to Windsor from Harold Hagemann Jr., director of State Parks Concessions Management Bureau, notes a departmental review of the process found no indication that it was anything other than “legal and appropriate.” On April 9, Charlotte Breeyear, director of bureau contracts for the state Comptroller’s Office, sent Windsor another letter indicating that her office previously reviewed and approved the lease extension in 2003 and, therefore ,would not consider his protest.

“The contract was approved by the state comptroller and the attorney general and we stand by it,” State Parks spokesperson Angela Berti said.

The new lease for the Maid’s Canadian operation replaced the payment of a flat, 15-percent of gross revenues with a sliding scale that provides for a payment to the commission of 17.5 percent for the first $11.5 million in receipts, with lower percentages to be paid thereafter. Critics like Windsor argue the deal will result in the Parks Commission earning less money than it has in the past, as the commission’s cut drops with each dollar earned above $17 million each year. Windsor said he’s prepared to offer the commission a bid that will more than double the agency’s earnings, but, so far, no one is listening.

“How can you sit there with a straight face and say you’re not going to consider somebody who is going to give you an extra $100 million in revenue?” Windsor said.

John Kernahan, general manager for the Niagara Falls Parks Commission, said the lease agreement with Maid of the Mist covers the land on the Canadian side where the boats are docked and has nothing to do with the operation of the attraction itself. As a result, he said, the commission was not required to solicit other bidders as would be the case if it were an agreement for a contract involving the purchase of a service or goods.

Kernahan dismissed claims the commission acted inappropriately in its handling of the lease and said the evidence is in the findings of Ontario Integrity Commissioner Lynn Morrison who cleared Niagara Parks of any wrongdoing or mismanagement in relation to the Maid agreement.

“It’s gone through a thorough review — as thorough as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The bottom line is none of the allegations were founded and that’s a pretty strong statement.”

The commissioner’s report did encourage the Parks Commission to review its decision to renew the lease without soliciting other proposals. It also recommended an audit be performed of all past procurement practices. Kernahan said the commission is following both directives.

“We have said that we will examine it again as thoroughly as we are able to,” Kernahan said.

Bob Gale, the owner of Gales Gas Bars in Ontario, stepped down from his position as chairman of marketing and events for the commission in protest of the handling of the lease deal. Gale, who has not been reappointed to the board since his term expired in February, said board members were not made aware of other interested vendors prior to the vote on the lease extension. Gale supports the position of the Windsor family and said the lease should be opened up to a formal bidding process that is overseen by an independent third party. Gale expressed zero confidence in the pending audit, noting that the auditor selected for the job has previously done work for the Niagara Parks Commission.

“The process was not fair,” Gale said. “I’ll stand behind that anytime. The process was not fair.”

Contact reporter Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.