Nfld. & Labrador

Marine Atlantic HQ moving west? Board mum on possible relocation

The Crown agency is reviewing the viability of relocating the corporation's headquarters from St. John's to Port aux Basques, but the board's chair is refusing to comment.

Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons says 'I don't care' when told about staff concerns

Kristopher Parsons, chair of the Marine Atlantic board of directors, is not commenting on a review to determine the viability of moving the agency's headquarters. (Memorial University of Newfoundland)

The long-standing debate over the location of Marine Atlantic's corporate headquarters is making waves again, with a review currently underway to determine the viability of relocating from St. John's to Port aux Basques.

And in a sign of just how sensitive this issue is, Marine Atlantic leadership has completely buttoned up, while political leaders in Port aux Basques are seizing on the opportunity to bring more jobs and economic growth to the southwest coast town.

Marine Atlantic is a federal Crown agency that operates ferry services between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. (Marine Atlantic)

The federal Crown corporation's board of directors hired a consultant in August 2018, and that work is ongoing, CBC has been learned.

But questions about the review, and the fate of the 20-plus Marine Atlantic employees based in St. John's, are not being answered through official channels.

MHA and mayor unaware of review

Board chair Kristopher Parsons, who is from Port aux Basques but lives and works in the St. John's area, has refused to speak on the matter, and Marine Atlantic's media spokesperson, Darrell Mercer, also declined comment.

Questions emailed to Marine Atlantic have gone unanswered.

But another member of the Parsons family — Burgeo-La Poile MHA and Liberal cabinet minister Andrew Parsons, Kristopher Parsons' brother — is not making any secret of his feelings..

Andrew Parsons said he was not aware of any review, but said he'd welcome a finding that recommends relocation.

"As far as I'm concerned having the headquarters in St. John's made about as much sense as having it in Moncton where they had it previously," he said said Thursday.

Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer, who has been lobbying for a greater Marine Atlantic presence in his town, was also unaware of the review when contacted by CBC.

Andrew Parsons, MHA for Burgeo-La Poile, is a strong advocate for relocating Marine Atlantic's headquarters from St. John's to the largest community in his district, Port aux Basques. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

CBC News has learned that some Marine Atlantic staff in St. John's are on edge over the possibility of being asked to relocate from the capital city to the southwest coast town, and believe relocating to Port aux Basques, a town of 4,000 residents, would create challenges with recruitment and retention of top talent.

But Andrew Parsons is not sympathetic, and accuses Marine Atlantic of "empire building" in St. John's, with an original staff of four "getting closer to 30."

"I think there's money that could be better spent improving the service in the places that it truly matters, which is in Port aux Basques and North Sydney," Parsons said.

And for those worried about having to either relocate or abandon their careers with Marine Atlantic?

No doubt that they don't want to go. But, frankly, I don't care. I do not care.- Andrew Parsons

"I would say, too bad," said Parsons.

"No doubt that they don't want to go. But, frankly, I don't care. I do not care."

The corporate headquarters has been located in St. John's since 1998, and occupies most of two floors at the Baine Johnston Centre downtown.

But there's long been a debate about its location, since St. John's is 900 kilometres away from Port aux Basques, and the busy terminal where most of the passenger and vehicle traffic board or disembark from Marine Atlantic vessels that make the 96-nautical-mile crossing between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

The Port aux Basques-North Sydney service is constitutionally mandated, with Marine Atlantic required to recover 65 per cent of its operating costs through user fees.

Marine Atlantic spokesperson Darrell Mercer declined comment Thursday when asked about the review. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The corporation also operates a seasonal service between North Sydney and Argentia, though 100 per cent of costs must be recovered on that service.

In 2017-18, Marine Atlantic's four ferries carried nearly 330,000 passengers and more than 200,000 passenger and commercial vehicles.

Marine Atlantic announced in June  it had purchased land in Port aux Basques for the construction of an administration building, and there was a hint in the news release that change might be coming.

"This will be a multimillion dollar facility that will consolidate administrative functions in Port aux Basques, similar to what has been done in other areas of our organization," Kristopher Parsons was quoted as saying at the time.

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