Kevin Hively, principal with the Rhode Island-based Ninigret Partners consulting firm carrying out a grant-funded survey of Gloucester’s waterfront, didn’t specifically mention the state’s Designated Port Area mandates when he noted that the future of Gloucester’s harbor may be “more about what you can do than what you want to do.”
He didn’t have to.
But as the city’s Harbor Plan Committee gathers tonight at City Hall to discuss Ninigret Partners’ preliminary report, its members and other city officials should recognize the clear signs that, without an easing of at least some key provisions of the DPA — if not a request to lift it altogether — the city, its residents and waterfront property owners have too little control and too few options as they look to adapt to changing conditions along the harbor and elsewhere.
In outlining his firm’s preliminary findings last week, Hively reported specific numbers: there are 132 individual parcels within the DPA’s boundaries — “a lot of little parcels, most of them less than an acre,” Hively said.
But then some of the numbers raise questions: The average monthly private employment includes 2,600 jobs generating $104 million annually in wages, the survey found. And adjusted employment figures show the commercial fishing industry represents the largest workforce with 391 workers; that’s ahead of seafood processing and preparation, with 379 jobs, and tourism and restaurants, at 545.
But many of those fishing industry jobs — both on the boats, or on land at the waterfront — are fading fast under the residual effects of NOAA’s dire catch limits for this year and next, and while the survey found 384 vessels with active permits — excluding lobster boats, where, for some reason, the data was “incomplete” — the fact is many of those boats and fishermen are not active, even if the permits are. And too many permits have virtually no value, since NOAA’s limits have essentially shut down the available groundfishing catch.
That’s the equation that has led city officials and local state lawmakers to support Scott Memhard and his Cape Pond Ice company in its bid to be lifted out from under the DPA’s constraints, and it’s just one part of the waterfront’s overall picture. But as the city’s committee moves forward it must address the fact that even basic, needed changes around the harbor need relief from the DPA.
That includes the need to lift the DPA ban and open the door to new space used for recreational boating – an important issue for the city’s downtown and one that, if still addressing at all, the city’s ineffective Waterways Board seems to keep advancing at the pace of a slow snail. A boost in the harbor’s dockage space — especially for transient space for day boaters who would visit Gloucester, its downtown restaurants and other businesses for a day, or even an afternoon — would provide an important boost for businesses far beyond the waterfront.
It also includes the need, once again, to try to lift the city-owned I-4, C-2 site out from under the DPA as well. It seems obvious to all that the DPA is hindering the city’s efforts to either lease or sell what should be one of its preeminent waterfront properties. That’s unfairly left city taxpayers holding the bag on a 2010 deal that cost $1.5 million, divided between city and state money. And it continues to cost the city untold parking revenues since many downtown workers and visitors alike have long since figured out they can skip the city’s meters and parking kiosks, and simply pull onto the I-4, C-2 lot for free.
The Ninigret Partners survey has brought a lot of information to the discussion table. And the new Harbor Plan Committee certainly has a lot to digest when it gathers tonight, and in hosting two more public hearings down the road.
But it’s clear that a slate of state mandates designed to once protect Gloucester’s harbor is on the verge of killing it by blocking precisely the kind of waterfront flexibility the city needs. Fixing that problem should be this committee’s Priority 1.