By Tom Dalton
---- — SALEM — The city may be entering the cruise ship business sooner rather than later.
Salem officials contacted the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs last month to inform them of a change to two key harbor projects. In that filing, the city said it is seeking permits to make improvements to the 800-foot, deep-water pier at Salem Harbor Station that would allow “large cruise ship berthing” as early as next year.
The city is prepared to spend up to $1 million on the private power plant pier to accommodate mid-sized cruise ships with anywhere from a few hundred to more than 1,500 passengers, according to Kathy Winn, deputy director of the Planning Department.
If permits are secured and all goes well, she said the city hopes to have the pier ready by the end of 2014.
City officials are in talks with Footprint Power, owners of the 65-acre waterfront site, about the cruise ship agreement, according to the July 15 filing with the state.
“Footprint fully supports this water-dependent use of the marine wharf on its property,” stated documents co-signed by Scott Silverstein, a principal of Footprint.
Among the subjects being discussed are short-term accommodations and also a long-term agreement in which the city would use and possibly co-manage the dock, according to Winn, who oversees harbor projects for the city.
“It’s a unique resource,” Winn said. “It’s a deep-water dock on a federal channel. It’s a great opportunity for the city.”
The idea of Salem reaching out for potential cruise landings comes as the cruise industry has pulled back from Gloucester this summer.
While large-scale cruise ships such as the 2,200-passenger Eurodam have carried visitors to Gloucester in recent years, all seven visits this year have and are scheduled to involve much smaller vessels — the Yorktown, which holds 139 passengers and visits three times, and the 49-passenger American Glory, which has regularly visited in the past and is due to make its first 2013 visit this Friday.
Whatever happens in Salem, Silverstein said it is important for Footprint to retain use of the dock for its own future development needs. Footprint, which is planning to build a natural gas power plant, hopes to find marine and commercial tenants for the rest of the site, some of which likely would need water access.
Footprint also plans to make use of its pier during demolition of the current plant and construction of the new facility. It has pledged to remove debris and bring in equipment and supplies by barges.
Driscoll and Footprint principals Peter Furniss and Silverstein have talked for some time about allowing cruise ships to dock at the power plant’s pier as a way of getting the city into the cruise ship business while waiting for construction of the city wharf to be completed.
A recent Planning Board decision included language about use of the pier.
Salem has done a lot of work recently on the Salem Wharf at the Blaney Street landing, which is adjacent to the power plant site, but it is not yet ready to host larger cruise ships, Winn said. An estimated 200 feet of the new Salem Wharf has been built, but funds have not yet been secured to build another 140-foot section and complete the project.
Now, it appears the city is planning to use the Blaney Street pier for the Salem Ferry, commercial vessels and smaller cruise ships and the power plant pier for what the cruise industry considers mid-sized vessels carrying several hundred or up to 2,000 passengers.
The construction planned would make the power plant pier accessible for passengers and also meet state and federal disability guidelines, officials said. There are also plans to build a walkway over to the Blaney Street landing.
Small cruise ships with about 100 passengers or fewer have stopped in Salem in the past, docking on Blaney Street.
In fact, a cruising vessel with Blount Small Ship Adventures is scheduled to stop here later this month.
Two years ago, Driscoll and others flew to Seattle to talk to a large cruise line about coming to Salem. As of now, no visits have been scheduled, but talks are ongoing.
“We’re actually in discussions with (companies) in the cruise industry who see this as a viable port,” the mayor said. “I feel very confident we’re going to have cruise ships here based on the discussions we’ve had.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.