By Sean Horgan
---- — Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The city is continuing its efforts to find a use for the infamous I-4, C-2 waterfront parcel it owns on Rogers Street.
That future of that 1.89-acre waterfront parcel has been the topic of incessant debate and political maneuvering since the city purchased it for $1.5 million in June 2010. Yet, it still sits vacant, primarily used for parking and offering nary a hint of the potential city leaders trumpeted when they made it part of the city’s real estate holdings more than three years ago.
While those winds of debate buffet the parcel from above, below the surface, the gears of government are grinding on.
“It’s a messy, ambiguous process,” Don Perkins, the president of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said Tuesday after convening an invitation-only workshop with about 30 community members on the potential mix of uses for a multi-tenant ocean development center at the site. “I don’t have sound bites for you today.”
The city, at a cost of $62,749, hired the Portland, Maine-based GMRI in September to organize three invitation-only workshops to help develop a list of potential ocean-related, multi-tenant concepts for the site.
It did so largely on the strength of GMRI’s success in developing its marine research and education facility on a 5.5-acre site on the Portland waterfront that opened in 2005, as well as the city’s pre-existing utilization of GMRI’s independent expertise on fisheries-related science.
The Portland center’s tenants include GMRI and its $18 million research lab; the U.S. Coast Guard; the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences; two Scottish companies, one involved in renewable energy consulting and the other in aquaculture veterinary services; and a website and interactive kiosk design company.
Tuesday’s workshop had about 30 invited participants from a cross-section of marine-related industries, community leaders, university and research organizations, and city planning and development staff.
Perkins described it as the embryonic stage to a complex process that he and city officials hope will bring real definition to realistic uses for the site. Nothing, he said, was locked in regarding specific uses or the composition of potential tenants.
“It has not crystalized that far yet,” Perkins said. “It’s a start.”
Perkins said two groups not represented at Tuesday’s workshop were private entrepreneurs and the commercial fishing industry. Both groups, he said, will be approached for their input as the process moves forward.
Two other key elements of the process will involve determining the physical capacity of the site, as well as the site’s economic capacity.
“It’s going to take an alignment of market opportunities, viable organizations or enterprises and investment in the form of some mix of equity and debt,” Perkins said. “That equity can be private equity or public equity.”
Sarah Garcia, the city’s harbor planning director, said the city will retain a vital role in the development of the parcel.
“A lot of people in Gloucester want the private market to solve the problem,” Garcia said. “This is about developing ideas into a collaboration and partnership. There is a public role for that.”
The second Gloucester workshop is scheduled for November, with the final one scheduled for some time in the very beginning of January 2014, with GMRI’s recommendation to the city coming not long after that.
“The final step would be to integrate what we’ve learned into a single idea the city can run with, stitching together the resources,” Perkins said.
That schedule sets the stage for a very busy first quarter of 2014 for the city and its waterfront, as the GMRI recommendation could arrive just as the city is putting its finishing touches on a new harbor plan and the state’s Coastal Zone Management agency and the city enter the final stages of their Designated Port Area boundary review.
That, according to Perkins, is not an unfortunate confluence of events.
“Communities ebb and flow on what they focus on,” Perkins said. “Gloucester is very focused on how does it re-imagine the harbor. It’s a very healthy time to be thinking about this property. Things aren’t locked down right now. They’re kind of up in the air. That’s an opportunity.”
Garcia said GMRI’s recommendation will go to the mayor and city council. The city, if it decides to follow the course set out by GMRI, then would pursue further funding, perhaps in the form of federal monies, for the project’s design.
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT