The label of "America's oldest seaport" not only conveys a source of Gloucester pride. It subtly spotlights Gloucester's greatest resources — its wonderful harbor and rich heritage.
So it's understandable that any plan or project touching either — let alone both — of those assets is seen as a landmark change for the city and its residents, and that some folks would be fiercely resistant to it.
There's no question that the Commercial Street rezoning plan being advanced by the Beauport Gloucester limited liability company formed by New Balance founder Jim Davis would bring dramatic change to the historic Fort neighborhood site that houses the long-dormant plant where Clarence Birdseye once perfected the fine art of flash-freezing fish.
Yet, after several weeks of community debate — on the Times letters page and elsewhere — and after two nights and some six hours of hearings before two city boards this week, it's abundantly clear that this rezoning, and the anticipated Beauport Gloucester hotel it will allow, is not a threat to Gloucester's heritage or the city's waterfront and its businesses.
To the contrary, it represents the kind of positive change the city has needed for years — an opportunity that officials and residents should embrace to help ensure that Gloucester has a positive economic future, in addition to its cherished past.
First, it's important to note that the proposed hotel overlay zone — covering an area from 33 Commercial St., the Chamber of Commerce building, through 45-61 Commercial St., the Birdseye site itself — would not replace the Fort's existing Maine Industrial zoning. It would be added to it — hence the term "overlay" — and would only add new permitted uses, in this case, the operation of a hotel and accessories such as restaurants, retail shops, a conference center and parking facilities.
Those who have adamantly opposed any rezoning and proposed hotel development have claimed the change and any such project would somehow bring the demise of the city's "working waterfront." Yet that's clearly not the case.
While some have touted the need to retain the stringent marine industrial status for this and all Fort properties, it's been telling that some key business people within the Fort itself are supporting the project.
In a letter in Friday's Times, Scott Memhard, longtime president of Cape Pond Ice — one of the Fort's core businesses — said he believes a "mix of marine industrial, residential, commercial and tourism" is indeed compatible, and will be for years to come.
Even more powerfully, Steve Cefalo — whose father has now sold Commercial Street's North Atlantic Fish Co., with a loss of some 25 jobs to Boston — said he feels "incredibly strongly about the need for change and redevelopment of not just The Fort but the entire harbor."
A hotel on the Pavilion Beach site will not negatively impact the city's fishing fleet or other waterfront businesses. Indeed, it should lure more visitors drawn to view all parts of the city's working waterfront — still Gloucester's prime attraction — in action, while patronizing downtown restaurants and other businesses.
It will not only generate new tax revenue for the city — revenue long overdue — but bring in new commercial revenue routinely lost when companies such as Gorton's and Varian house corporate visitors at hotels in Peabody and elsewhere while hosting business meetings here. And it can help establish Gloucester as a hub for marine-related conferences, for meetings of the New England Fishery Management Council and other events that "America's oldest seaport" deserves to be able to host.
It should, in other words, help provide a new spotlight for Gloucester's rich heritage and working present, all the while setting the stage for a bustling future.
The Planning Board and City Council Planning and Development subcommittee have now heard all the testimony and rebuttals from all sides. It will soon come time to render their recommendations, all leading to a City Council verdict.
But there is already a very clear answer, for the good of the city as a whole: It's "yes."
This is a plan and a project that Gloucester, its businesses and residents should embrace, not fear. It's one deserving of emphatic citywide support.