Good for Scott Memhard, and good for Cape Pond Ice.
Over the last two years, the city’s failure to find a developer for its I-4, C-2 property, and the government-fueled economic collapse of Gloucester’s fishing industry have turned up the spotlight on the state’s Designated Port Area development restrictions that are choking the potential of the city’s inner harbor waterfront.
But a push by Councilor Bruce Tobey to try to lift the vacant I-4, C-2 site out from under the shackles of the DPA mandates last year went nowhere, with the council stunningly voting 8-1 to leave the regulations be. And while some waterfront property owners have justifiably grumbled about the DPA’s effects on their economic future, no one had done anything about it — until now.
That agent for change is Memhard, who has written to Mayor Carolyn Kirk and is due to meet Wednesday with Kirk, state lawmakers Bruce Tarr and Ann-Margaret Ferrante and others about his formal request to officially lift Cape Pond Ice out from the constraints of the DPA — the first such written request made by a Gloucester business along the harbor.
Caught up in fishing’s federally recognized “economic disaster,” Cape Pond Ice — which once supplied millions of tons of ice to Gloucester’s fishing fleet each year — is now using just roughly a third of its space. Memhard has the property on the market, and would love to carve out a deal by which a buyer and potential developer would lease back the space he needs to operate Cape Pond, which is still a very viable beyond the fishing industry. But he says no one is interested in taking on the property because the DPA mandates would likely preclude, among other things, development of a potential restaurant on site, or any recreational boating dockage.
That cannot be a surprise to Kirk or to other city officials, who have hit a stone wall on I-4, C-2 development. Indeed, developers who took out the city’s initial request for proposals (RFP) two years ago essentially said they saw the DPA as excessively limiting their options, so they backed off. The DPA still requires that 50 percent of any included property have a water-dependent use, and that such uses be marine industrial. It specifically blocks recreational boating use, and the expansion of recreational dockage is among Gloucester’s greatest economic development needs.
Kirk has brought aboard the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to help identify potential I-4, C-2 buyers and/or tenants, but it remains to be seen whether even that effort can draw interest in a property that’s generated virtually zero tax revenue since Gloucester acquired it for $1.5 million in June 2010, with the aid of $750,000 through the state’s Seaport Advisory Council.
It’s not surprising that all officials are hedging, at this point, on Memhard’s proposal, and part of that may be lingering questions about the process. The DPA — which has hovered over any Gloucester harbor plan for more than two decades, is a state protection tool, so the state would have final say. Yet it’s hard to imagine state officials would entertain a pullout if Memhard didn’t have the city’s and local lawmakers’ support, hence the Wednesday meeting.
One course of action can be a review of the DPA boundaries — and that’s in the works, part of a study for which the city has landed a $400,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection. But that pullout route would need the backing of the state’s Coastal Zone Management agency, while the alternative would need state legislation filed and/or backed by the city through Ferrante and Tarr.
Are there concerns about all of this? Of course — notably, whether a DPA pullout for Cape Pond Ice would trigger a rash of requests from other property owners as well. But wouldn’t that also show city and state officials just how cumbersome these DPA economic handcuffs have become? Wouldn’t it at least show the need to revise the DPA by perhaps reducing the 50-percent mandate, or allowing recreational boating commerce or perhaps other uses as well?
Memhard and Cape Pond Ice indeed deserve the relief from the DPA that he and the company are seeking. But beyond that, he deserves immense credit for stepping up and putting this economic survival issue on the front burners for city and state officials alike.
That’s right where it belongs.