By Jonathan L'Ecuyer
Mt. Auburn Associates was hired to produce an economic development plan highlighting the harbor's economic potential while adhering to the constraints of the Designated Port Area and current zoning.
Now, after two years of work and public forums, the consultants are urging a series of actions aimed at stimulating the "three legs of the harbor economy" — commercial fishing industry, the visitor-based economy, and the maritime economy.
Re-establishing a city Fisheries Commission, improving access to the harbor via land and water, and establishing a Maritime Industry Development Unit were among the initiatives presented to residents at Monday night's City Hall forum on the draft final report of Gloucester's Harbor Economic Development Plan.
According to the 113-page report, the initiatives are aimed at sustaining and growing the three legs of the harbor economy, stimulating harbor property investment, and supporting downtown development by strengthening linkages between the harbor and downtown.
Mt. Auburn, hired by the city through a $150,000 state Seaport Advisory grant, notes there is "no lack of ideas for strengthening the harbor and downtown economies" in Gloucester.
The problem has been transforming those ideas into reality.
One of the "fundamental barriers," the report notes, is a lack of community consensus about goals and priorities.
Another critical barrier is the city's limited resources and organizational capacity.
Lastly, while the city has several public and private groups working toward economic development, "activities are often fragmented among different organizations, leading to poor coordination, overlap and duplication."
The report crafts seven goals as a benchmark against which strategies and the nearly two dozen initiatives could be evaluated.
Among the chief goals are:
Diversifying the harbor's economic base by attracting new industry and supporting commercial uses.
Sustaining traditional industrial uses such as commercial fishing.
Expanding high-quality job and income opportunities for Gloucester residents.
Making the area more accessible to visitors and residents.
While the report notes the commercial fishing industry has been thrown into a "state of deep uncertainty by federal regulations," it adds that the industry is "very likely" to survive in some form and that there are actions the community can take now to create a more "favorable environment" in the future.
Catch levels are currently set low in order to hit species recovery targets by 2014 set by the federal government. Once those targets have been met, Mayor Carolyn Kirk noted, Gloucester's landings are projected to triple from 2008 levels when the city was 10th in the nation in terms of volume of fish landings by weight.
Some relief may be on the way even sooner if catch limit concessions offered earlier this month by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke can be implemented within the next several months.
Meanwhile, among the actions identified by Mt. Auburn Associates that Gloucester should take to help its fishing industry is the re-establishment of the Fisheries Commission, which would work to lead efforts to strengthen the economic position of Gloucester's fishing industry.
The report proposes the commission, which would likely be paid for by the city, should be comprised of local commercial fishermen, processors and businesses that provide support services.
While a full-time staffer would be preferable, the report adds, the commission should at least have one part-time staffer and be provided with administrative support.
Other ideas include increasing industry revenues through developing supplementary uses for vessels and crew — including tie-ins with marine research and workforce training programs.
As the industry workforce ages, shortages in trained fishing crews and technical workers are likely to emerge, the report notes. It goes on to say that a number of past training efforts, including those conducted at the Fisherman's Wives Resource Center, should be examined as potential models for new programs.
The harbor's working port and its many historical, cultural, and recreational attractions make tourism a significant component of the harbor economy.
"A working harborfront is what separates us from Salem and even Newburyport," Kirk said earlier Monday at City Hall.
However, the report states it's widely believed that the tourism potential of the harbor has not been fully tapped and, while that belief is attributed to a number of factors, three stand out as most significant.
Lack of a single brand or coordinated marketing effort;
Relatively limited access to the harbor via land or water;
A lack of hotel facilities.
While strengthening tourism marketing and improving harbor access by land and water are among the top initiatives proposed to help bolster the visitor-based economy, extension of the city's partially-completed Harborwalk as well as promotion of downtown hotel development are seen as two ways of transforming Gloucester's harbor into a destination.
"We believe that the Harborwalk, which would begin at St. Peter's Square, travel along the working waterfront over to I-4, C-2, Harbor Loop and up through downtown and back to St. Peter's Square, will provide the destination experience," Kirk said. "It is a 1.2-mile loop, and makes the working waterfront very accessible once built."
While the city continues work on idea development for its recently acquired harborfront parcel known as I-4, C-2, Kirk said Mt. Auburn was instructed not to focus on development on any particular parcel of real-estate.
"Let's look at jobs and the what the (area's) economic future could be," Kirk said, "then worry later where it manifests itself in the layout of the city."
Boatbuilding and more
Mt. Auburn's research on the maritime industry identified "concrete growth opportunities" in marine research and education as well as marine industries such as advanced boatbuilding, aquaculture, and marine alternative energy.
Though the report warns that maritime economic activities have yet to establish "a strong foothold in Gloucester," so their potential for generating local business development remains speculative.
"The maritime economy can range from strictly marine research such as is the case with Ocean Alliance, all the way to creative enterprises which thrive here," Kirk said. "Artists certainly are drawn to Gloucester for its natural beauty and light, and the creative economy is a large part of the future jobs and investment the city needs."
The draft final report has already garnered attention from the Canadian Consulate in Boston, which after spotting the draft final report on the city's website last month, expressed an interest in working with Gloucester on marine economic and research endeavours through the nation's Coastal Zones Research Institute in Shippagan, New Brunswick. The first meeting took place last month, Kirk said.
Other initiatives aimed at helping the maritime economy include, installing wireless Internet access serving downtown and the harbor area, and exploration of further modifying the DPA.
"(Mt. Auburn) characterized the economy with the current zoning and DPA as a foundation and said that if it's not enough, that we should revisit and look to loosen the zoning and DPA," Kirk said. "Basically, we wanted to first give the current zoning a chance to succeed."
Mt. Auburn said implementation of the plan will occur only if a leadership group is established whose sole mission is to achieve the plan's goals by establishing measurable objectives, mobilizing organizational and financial resources, monitoring progress, and adjusting strategies and tactics as circumstances change.
Though the consultants advise that the group should be a public-private partnership, composed of government, business, and civic leaders, interested citizens, and representatives of key stakeholder groups, Kirk said yesterday there have been no discussions as of yet as to who would be appointed to the leadership group.
Kirk said it's likely the city will use money from the harbor economic development plan grant to hire a part-time project manager "to keep people on task, because I want to see things implemented."
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at 978-283-7000 x 3451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.