Victoria Harbour Ferry will sail again after Ralmax steps in

Ian Maxwell may be painted as the knight in shining armour who rode in to save the Victoria Harbour Ferry Company, but the president of the Ralmax Group said there is more to his latest acquisition than saving a popular tourist attraction.

Maxwell stepped in over the weekend to take a controlling stake in the 30-year-old ferry company after it was announced the firm was to cease operations at the end of this month due to a dispute with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority.

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The purchase and the subsequent deal he signed with the harbour authority for access to key docks at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Inner Causeway in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel will keep the ferry company in business this summer and it may set the table for a bigger role in the region for its fleet of 17 vessels.

The vessels, each with a capacity of 10 to 12 passengers, are used for tours of Victoria Harbour, pub crawls and a taxi service that serves 14 docks.

As for the longer term, Maxwell said it’s a little early to be looking into the crystal ball, as he has only had control of the company for two days.

Still, he said, there is method to his madness.

“I’m not just playing at this, and I didn’t just rush in to save the day,” he said. “I thought this through, I liked the people involved and I liked the idea.”

As the man behind a conglomerate of industrial companies that include Point Hope Maritime, United Engineering, Salish Sea Industrial and Trio Ready-Mix, he can see the possibility of using vessels like these to move people to work sites around the region, well beyond the tourism industry and the Inner Harbour.

“At the same time, this is a tourist community and COVID is a great opportunity for everyone to work together for the future,” he said. “We are all in this thing together, whether that’s us as an industrial user on the waterfront or the GVHA as an operator of Fisherman’s Wharf and Ogden Point or Barry [Hobbis] and his partners ferrying people around from place to place.”

Maxwell, who was part of the team that negotiated the transfer of Transport Canada harbour lands to a local authority, also hopes to take a more active role.

“I am very, very fond of the GVHA. I may not always agree with them, but I sometimes feel Ralmax hasn’t lived up to its responsibility as far as helping on the harbour,” he said. “I will change that and will help them through whatever they are going through and help them be the best they can be.”

Terms of the deal Maxwell made for the ferry company have not been been disclosed, but it will see Ralmax take a 55 per cent ownership stake in Victoria Harbour Ferry.

“I’m really pleased we were able to get this done,” said GVHA chief executive Ian Robertson. “I’m pleased Ian is involved; he’s a well-respected business person who is passionate about the harbour and I know that dealing with him will always be win-win.

“I’m really happy he has taken a majority ownership. Once Ian got involved we were able to get this done very easily.”

Getting an agreement was key in this transaction as last week Victoria Harbour Ferry announced it intended to cease operations at the end of this month as a result of a contract dispute with the harbour authority.

The company had been hoping to negotiate a deal for moorage with the authority, which controls the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf and on the Inner Causeway that are vital to the ferry operation.

The GVHA said it was unwilling to negotiate the terms of the deal it had offered.

With no deal, the company had no access to the docks, and expected to lose up to 80 per cent of its business.

The decision to shut down resulted in a public outcry imploring the harbour authority to reconsider its position.

“We are grateful to have Ralmax’s interest and professionalism to help move us through this challenging season,” said Victoria Harbour Ferry chief executive Barry Hobbis. “From crisis to opportunity in a weekend. This is a new day and we are all in this together.”

John Wilson, chief executive of Wilson’s Transportation, said the confusion resulting from Victoria Harbour Ferry’s decision last week did get him thinking about bringing forward his new electric boat business this year.

Wilson had originally planned to launch the Victoria Electric Boat Company in 2020 with a small fleet of electric boats ferrying people around stops on the Inner Harbour and beyond.

Those plans were shelved with the dawn of the pandemic.

“Our plan since COVID hit was to delay the Victoria Electric Boat Company to a 2021 start given the impact on tourism this crazy season has had to date and expected for the rest of the year,” he said.

Wilson said he was caught off guard by the Harbour Ferry story and had contacted his partners to see if they should start this year if Victoria Harbour Ferry did indeed shut down.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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