Reopening the border to the U.S. can’t come soon enough for John Kinney, president of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.
But with an operation in Lewiston, “we’re one of the lucky ones,” he says of his boat tours, knowing he’s in a much better situation than most businesses.
“If I had to rely on domestic Ontario business, I’d be really up the creek,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be a little more diversified with a U.S. operation. The dichotomy between the two now tells the story.”
He can run tours at full capacity from the other side of the border, with every boat full, while the latest stage of reopening is now allowing him to operate his boats from the Queenston dock with just 12 passengers each tour, while all the full fixed charges for insurance, maintenance, staff and other fixed costs continue. Government regulations dictate maintenance is required to be carried out according to the number of hours the boats are operated, and he is running more boats to accommodate fewer
He can take advantage of some of the government subsidies, he says, but there are no subsides for rebuilding engines or jet drivers.
“Last year, we did four times the number of boat tours for one-quarter of the number of passengers,” he says.
He’s decided not to use the town-owned Melville Street dock this season — the numbers don’t justify more than one operation in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
In 2019, Kinney says he paid $175,000, the full cost of his lease to the town, although he didn’t use it.
In February, 2020, Kinney asked council for some consideration of that amount, saying high water levels drove his operation completely to Queenston.
He made a proposal to the town for a reduced cost for 2020, offering to pay $44,000, and at the end of the year, on Dec. 28, he dropped off a cheque for that amount at the town hall.
However, he was later told by his lawyer that council had not ratified that agreement.
All council discussions of lease negotiations have been held in closed session, and recently councillors have been discussing the town dock, but with no information about what was said made public.
Kinney is waiting to hear from his lawyer whether the town is looking for more money from him, if so, how much, and what is expected of him for 2021.
He says he applauds the way the town has stepped up for restaurants, supporting their outdoor patios, but the jet boat business, off the beaten track from tourism traffic, doesn’t benefit from that.
Although border openings will improve his business outlook, he expects it will take three or four years for tourism to rebound.
“People think attractions are allowed to reopen, and COVID must be in the rear view mirror. Clearly, it’s not, and it will be some time before tourism recovers.”
Although he says he hopes his jet boats play a part of the Dock Area scene in the future, it’s far from guaranteed his business will have a place in the town’s master plan for the waterfront.
The town has done a good job of acquiring waterfront property, “which I applaud,” he says, but as soon as there is a suggestion made about what to do with it, “there is immediate pushback. Residents don’t have a bona fide waterfront to go to. It’s community owned, but assets like the Melville dock are basically unused.”
The town had asked, even before 2019, that some of the jet boat operations be moved upriver to take pressure off the Dock Area, which it did.
He says Whirlpool Jets could be part of the waterfront, and he’d like to engage with the town on how that could look, along with other waterfront activities, but in the meantime, “because of what has happened in 2019, 2020 and 2021, we’ve had to transform how we do business.”
Meanwhile, Bruno Caciagli also has his eye on the future of the town-owned dock.
He’s heard rumours that the town might be open to other suggestions for its use, and that there are other tour companies interested.
His plan is for a cross-lake ferry, a concept he has been working on since 2014. In 2019, he made a presentation to town council, and received support in principle for his proposal, in order to help him move forward with the project. Not a lot has changed since then, and despite some obstacles along the way, he told The Local recently, he hasn’t given up.
The president of Ontario Lake Express had hoped to have boats running between Niagara and Toronto for the Canada Summer Games, but even with a year delay to the games due to COVID, the best he can hope for now is a boat, similar to a hydrofoil, at a NOTL dock, “if I can get permission.”
He would like it here during the games next summer to demonstrate the technology, and show what he hopes to accomplish when he’s ready to start his tours, which, realistically, by the time the boats are built by a U.K. company, would be 2024.
He’s looking at a kind of hydrofoil, with wings under the keel, which at a certain speed lifts the hull on top of the water, he explains, with no noise, and no wake.
“I’m not interested in conventional boats. I want to show everybody what the future is like.”
Caciagli wants to run two zero-emission boats, 50 or 80-passenger capacity, charging $25 a ride.
The benefit to a successful water link is chiefly the time it saves for commuters and visitors to Niagara, he says, and also reduces vehicles on the road to protect the environment and reduce climate change, “to do something for our children and grandchildren.”
He was asked in 2019 by council whether he has talked to Parks Canada — he was hoping to use the Navy Hall dock. He has not, and is considering the possibility of the Melville Street dock should it become available.
He was also asked by NOTL councillors about the weather, which has plagued other companies with similar ideas, and says he will only run during the tourist season, with boats that are built to operate in lake conditions.
He has made a presentation to the region’s economic development group, which he says was received with enthusiasm. “I met with chair Jim Bradley and some municipal mayors, and everyone was supportive.”
He hopes to come to town council to make another presentation soon, he says, and bring them up to date on what he’s doing.
“So that’s where I’m at now,” he says.
Kinney says he has spoken to Caciagli, who has no background in the marine transportation industry, about his plans, and tried to help walk him through the maze of government regulations and licences that will be required.
“I’ve helped steer him in the right direction,” he says, explaining that regulations for operating in Lake Ontario are very different from running a tour in the Niagara River.
“It’s extremely difficult just dealing with transportation regulations, never mind the business aspects of a transportation operation,” says Kinney, “but I do think at some point in my lifetime, there will be a cross-lake