The giant dredge that will return the Annisquam River to safe navigability is expected to arrive in Gloucester next week, and the project, which has had more twists and turns than the ancient river itself, physically will begin in earnest.
On Friday, officials came from near and far, and from the varying strata of government, to the Coast Guard’s Station Gloucester on Harbor Loop to celebrate the onset of the $7.85 million project that will remove about 140,000 cubic yards of sand and bring new life to the Annisquam.
The gathering that included Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, as well as U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton and officers of the Army Corps of Engineers, may have been scheduled as a celebration of a critical public works project.
But it soon morphed into something distinctive and wholly unfashionable in this the age of political rancor and division. It became a civics lesson on cooperation and bi-partisanship, offering a glimpse of the actual restorative power of government.
Speaker after speaker, from Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken to Baker and on down the line, extolled the collaborative virtues that literally saved the long-sought and vital project just when it seemed to be slipping away.
“We found a way to work together to make this happen,” Baker said.
Not that it was easy. It was, in the words of state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, akin to “riding a unicorn.”
Reaching out, everywhere
Everything appeared rosy last June when Moulton’s office announced the Army Corps of Engineers had included $6 million in its budget to pay for dredging portions of the Annisquam, which hadn’t had any substantial dredging since 1963.
The removal of the gathering shoals was critical to return the federal channel to navigable depths for commercial fishermen, recreational boaters and — most importantly — marine first-responders from the city and the Coast Guard.
There were still a couple revisions. The dredging schedule was stretched over two winter dredging seasons instead of one to accommodate concerns over the work’s impact on the winter flounder habitat and the lobster industry. But those were handled smoothly.
On Aug. 2, smooth went out the window.
The two bids received for the project were opened. The $13,688,500 bid from Salem-based Burnham Associates was more than double the Army Corps’ cost estimate of $6 million. The second bid of $11,404,525, from Connecticut-based Coastline Consulting, wasn’t far behind.
Suddenly, the city was scrambling to make up the $2.4 million shortfall needed to perform the basic necessities of the work and to begin the project this fall. It had a month to come up with the cash if the project was to stay on schedule.
The city — notably Romeo Theken and Chief Administrative Officer Jim Destino — reached out to Moulton and the rest of the congressional delegation to see what might be available in the way of additional federal funds and to serve as point persons in dealing with the Army Corps on the federal end.
The city enlisted the aid of Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante to put a full-court press on the Baker administration to see if there might be any funds there to close the gap. Romeo Theken leaned on her personal relationship with Polito, a fellow Sicilian with whom she serves on the Seaport Economic Council, and Baker.
It wasn’t just the headliners. Behind the scenes, staff at every level — City Hall, the Statehouse delegation, Moulton’s office, the Army Corps — also were working feverishly to salvage the project. It was all dredging, all the time.
Then the city struck gold.
The Baker administration agreed to award the city $2.4 million from a state dredging fund. The dredging would begin on time and the essential elements of the project would be accomplished. Tragedy would be narrowly averted.
“One of the important parts was that we already had a number of programs already in place,” Baker said. “That made it possible to create a vehicle to create a matching grant, which this essentially is.”
Well, almost. Just one tiny problem: The state couldn’t just give the money to the city. It had to go to the Army Corps and there wasn’t really a mechanism in place for that to happen.
More phone calls, texts, letters, emails, gnashing of teeth et al.
In the end, Moulton and his staff did much of the heavy lifting in Washington in figuring out a way to get the funds to the Army Corps. It only took congressional approval.
So, that is why on Friday each and every speaker returned to the same theme of collaboration and shared perseverance.
“This was an example of government at its best,” Moulton, a Democrat, said while standing next to Republicans Baker and Polito.
Tarr remarked on the extraordinary effort from all quarters and how it stands in sharp relief against what usually transpires today for statesmanship.
“On Cape Ann and in the northeast part of this state, we do things a little differently,” he said.
Romeo Theken thanked, well, everyone. She singled out Baker and Polito for special praise.
“We couldn’t have done this without you,” she told them Friday near the end of her remarks. But really, she could have said that to just about everyone in the room.
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.