By Marjorie Nesin
---- — A waterfront activist says she has plans to transform the long-empty Rogers Street I-4, C-2 lot into an industrial park in the same model as the state’s Jodrey Fish Pier, but concedes that her proposal lacks financing and what she says is the necessary city backing.
Susanne Altenburger, widow of globally-known boatbuilder Phil Bolger and now a leading partner in Phil Bolger and Friends Inc., has created elaborate plans to build what she calls an “ocean innovation campus” on the city-owned waterfront lot, which has failed to attract a commercial developer through its formal request for proposals, or RFP.
The campus would be a working boat building facility for fuel-efficient vessels, where high school and/or community college students could come to learn about boat innovation and work on real projects.
”We need to be building a sense of pride in collaboration with the schools here,” Altenburger said. And, she said, the ocean innovation campus would ignite that historic maritime pride.
The city published a request for proposals for the I-4, C-2 lot in late 2011 and received no bids. That first request mandated that an applicant must prove they could generate $75,000 in tax revenue.
Now, Mayor Carolyn Kirk has submitted a revised request for proposals to city councilors for approval, but at least in the mayor’s draft, an applicant would need to submit a down payment of $10,000 simply to apply — and Altenburger has not mustered that.
”That would be pretending I could pull a project off financially, which I simply can’t,” Altenburger said.
Instead, Altenburger is proposing the city request state funding for her plans, making the city a facilitator, or the go-between, for state funding and what would still evolve as a private industry project along the lines of the current fish pier.
The I-4, C-2 lot is within the boundaries of the state Designated Port Area, meaning that at least half of any business on the land must be totally water dependent, a qualification that Altenburger’s plan meets. The project requires a certain amount of water area for launching the fuel-efficient crafts designed by Phil Bolger and Friends, Inc., and the port area designation also opens the city up to receive special state funding for the lot, she says.
”The city should apply for its own RFP. Don’t wait for somebody else and try to accommodate,” said Altenburger, who adamantly opposes any city option to sell the I-4, C-2 site, as the new RFP proposal would allow. “As America’s oldest seaport, how will you be able to control yourself, if you sell your only DPA property?”
Along with the boat launching site to be built on the coastal edge of the lot, the proposed $12 million site would employ a group of people working in administration, foremen, sales and tourism jobs. The standardized industrial building, would be modified with murals that depict maritime history as painted by Gloucester artists, a rooftop garden space, and a small performance space.
The key feature though, would likely be the 180-by-120-foot indoor shop where people would build the long, lean, fuel efficient vessels to be used in fishing, maritime research, for tourism, and as pleasure boats.
Altenburger said she has made contact with Gloucester school officials and an official at the North Shore Technical High School, in hopes of drawing students to a unique experience as students in what would be the region’s only saltwater campus specializing in boat building.
”It’s not an alien experiment on a clean table,” Altenburger said. “They would have to crawl all over the boat.”
While not all of the students would go on to become shipwrights, Altenburger noted that students could apply learned skills, like hydraulics work and experience with wiring, in other fields, even in jobs based on dry land.
“These are portable skill sets that would not expire,” Altenburger said.
And, said Altenburger, her plan could push the development of Gloucester’s marine business forward as those trained at the campus might start their own maritime-dependent businesses here.
“People who work in this thing will eventually start pealing off, saying I think I can do this better or specialize in that,” Altenburger said. “The question is, are we going to stand in our own way?”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.