Tourism leaders warn region and government of looming ‘disaster’

Cruise boats within Kingston’s Inner Harbour on a rainy last day of April 2024. Photo by Daniel Tastard-Homer/Kingstonist.

Kingston’s busiest tourist season is about to begin — but a massive, federally owned obstacle, the LaSalle Causeway, lies in its path.

With the announcement on Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2024, that St. Lawrence Cruise Lines is poised to take legal action against the federal government over the “bungled bridge overhaul” which has trapped numerous commercial vessels in the inner harbour, other affected business owners are equally exasperated and watching closely. These include Bob Clark of Kingston Marina and MetalCraft Marine, and Eric Ferguson, the General Manager of Kingston Destination Group, which operates Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises, Kingston Trolley Tours, K-Pass, Waterfront Gifts & Apparel, and Kingston Walks.

Clark said the irony is that he and his staff had never believed the ongoing repairs on the bridge were going to be completed in time for this year’s season, so they even took some evasive action ahead of time: “We totally believed that no way on earth they’d be ready April 30, [2024], from a year ago, and we just changed the design of our boats so it was easier to remove the radar arches on the bigger boats so we could get under the low bridge.”

What he didn’t see coming was this “disaster” for the boating community and the tourism sector that rely on his business in the inner harbour.

“It’s terrible because our friends with the tour boats, this is about their entire year’s revenue, right? They only make revenue in the summer. They will lose an awful lot of money, and Kingston tourism will drop if they don’t get some means to get those boats out,” Clark expressed.

Kingston 1000 Islands Cruise Lines are as desperate as St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, according to Ferguson, who wrote in an email to Kingstonist on the day of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines’ aforementioned announcement, “Their cruise line began cancelling trips today, and we’ll begin feeling those impacts, too, as the busy Mother’s Day and Victoria Day weekends approach.”

Ferguson continued, “We believe that a solution is still possible; it’s on the table and can still be achieved in time for the beginning of the navigation season. We’ve had good engagement from all three levels of government, and we believe that they understand the issues: they understand the timelines and the significant impact this will have on Kingstonians and their families. But the government agencies responsible for taking swift action to reopen this navigable waterway have so far been unable to act quickly. Action is needed now.”

Clark (of MetalCraft Marine and the Kingston Marina, as opposed to Jason Clark of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines), shared his thoughts on the hope for “swift action” and the plan that St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises proposed to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), the federal agency that oversees the operations and maintenance of the LaSalle Causeway.

“They’re looking at removing one of the fixed links of the bridge… so that the boats can get out and a number of our winter storage sailboats don’t have to drop their mast to get out [under the low bridge], because that’s not cheap,” Clark said of the plan proposed by the boat lines (which can be read/seen in Kingstonist previous coverage from April 24, 2024).

Further, he noted, “There’s open discussion on whether they’re going to put it back because the city does need another crossing. Right now it’s bad, but when you double the number of cars for tourists, it is really going to be bad.”

Clark said that the biggest negative impact on his businesses will be the lack of access to Kingston Marina.

“We usually get anywhere from six to 10 mega yachts a year that come in here, and there’s nowhere else for them to dock… They’re long boats, so they pay a lot of money to dock, and they typically buy anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 worth of fuel. So there’s a big loss there for us at the Marina,” he said, noting that, in addition, “the whole city loses out on those rich people and the money they bring to the city.”

Summer boaters rely on Kingston Marina to buy fuel and get their waste pumped out (a service that isn’t available at Confederation Basin), as they head up the “mini loop” from Kingston on to Ottawa and down through Montreal back to southern destinations, Clark explained. Similarly, many do the “large loop… which is going across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi. And those people invest a lot of revenue in retail here.”

He has spoken with other marine operators further up the Rideau Canal, who are “worried sick” they won’t get the revenue from the larger boats who pay more because of the size of their vessels.

Additionally, the MetalCraft manager said PSPC has never contacted him about his problems.

“No, no, they’re very tight-lipped, which,” Clark said, in his opinion, “means they’re trying to cover something up.”

He hasn’t attempted to contact PSPC himself because he is taking his lead from Ferguson and Jason Clark of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines.

“They have the most to lose,” Clark expressed.

But he wants to know how the government will handle the collective financial losses. As of this point, he said, the information is not forthcoming.

“The liability, who’s paying? Is it going to be the contractor’s insurance company or the engineer… We don’t know who caused the mistake yet because they won’t say, [so] whose insurance is paying? And are they paying the [federal government] and then we file our claims with them? Or do we file our claims directly with the insurance company? No one knows because they won’t say,” said Clark.

He pointed out that the full impact of the situation will take a while to comprehend, especially on hotels, restaurants, and retail outlets.

“The minute the tourist season starts… the first people who come here can’t even move in the city because of traffic. [They will tell] all of their friends who are coming later, or coming to the Poker Run, or coming for Canada Day or Buskers [Rendezvous] or any of those big events. And when people find out that you can’t move in the city, you’re going to see cancellations. I understand that the hotels are fully booked right now. If people cannot drive around the city, that is a total disaster,” said Clark, further pointing out that he dreads an emergency in the city, like an accident on Highway 401 or at the Montreal Street entrance to the Waaban Crossing.

“The city will be at a standstill… Last year or so, we had at least five big accidents on the 401 where they diverted traffic. I can’t even imagine what would happen now.”

Ferguson believes the federal government can and must step up.

“If the bascule bridge can’t be lifted, PSPC must work with its civil contractors to open one concrete span in the east portion of the bridge. They have the engineers, the know-how, and the resources to act, and they must do so,” he said.

“The Cataraqui River is a navigable waterway, now blocked by a federally owned obstruction. Meanwhile, it’s within the federal government’s capability to safely and swiftly restore navigation. It’s in the interest of every stakeholder, from government to industry, to individuals and families, that the federal government act immediately on its obligation to permit the free movement of marine traffic in this waterway.”

Putting it more bluntly, Clark said, “I think the general public should be aware that the [Member of Parliament] for Kingston is not forcing information out of those guys. We deserve the information. This is a disaster for the city in the making. And it can only worsen if people don’t know what action to take. Getting a bridge open for the tour boats is absolutely critical.” 

Kingstonist reached out to PSPC for comment on the impact to local businesses and the tourism sector in general, but no response was received by time of publication. Kingstonist also reached out to Ontario Waterway Cruises, as the Kawartha Voyageur is currently trapped within Kingston’s Inner Harbour, but no response was received.

With files from Tori Stafford.

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