Shipyard love mutes criticism of Belfast expansion plan
BELFAST - Front Street Shipyard detailed a major proposed expansion of its waterfront complex to the City Council on Tuesday night. The plan, which would call for the construction of the largest building yet on the property and most likely require use of city land, drew some strident criticism after it was announced last week. But an explanation by the Shipyard's soft-spoken president J.B. Turner seemed to have mellowing effect, reducing deal breakers to details, with several councilors urging an expedited process.
Turner said the Shipyard has become a "fairly significant attraction" since it opened 18 months ago, relying not only on business from large yachts and commercial vessels but on what he called the facility's "core business" from small boat owners. The proposed additions would allow the Shipyard to work on vessels that exceed the capacity of the current 150-ton travel lift.
To do this, he said, the Shipyard would buy a second travel lift capable of bearing loads up to 300 metric tons. The new and old lifts would work side-by-side with the addition of a third leg to the south of the existing pier. The arrangement would allow the two lifts to share the center leg and work side-by-side.
The travel lift alone would not generate enough income to pay for itself, Turner said. The solution, he said, would be to construct a new building of roughly the same dimensions as the largest building on the property today, so-called Building 5, located across from the wastewater treatment plant. The new building would stand six to eight feet taller than Building 5 and the extra height, Turner said, would allow the new travel lift to drive through the front doors bearing large vessels that would typically remain there for longer periods to allow for extensive overhauls.
What remains to be determined is where a building that size would go.
Using a map of the Shipyard property and a paper cut-out the size of the proposed new building, Turner illustrated the three options he and the Shipyard's management have considered. None would be without problems, he said, but the best location from the point of view of the business would be next to Building 5, on the site of the Front Street municipal parking lot.
Turner said this location would eliminate some of the shipyard's current outdoor storage but offered the best access to the travel lift pier and would allow for the desired rectangular shape of the building, which in the paper versions he briefly replaced with a version with an extension at one end that he said resembled a possible future request if the Shipyard ever decides to go one size larger. It appeared that this hypothetical building would still fit within the parking lot area.
Other less desireable options included razing, and then raising the height of, the existing Building 4, located near the travel lift. A third option would place the new building on the city-owned property most recently used by the Maskers Theater. Turner said this option was the least desireable because it would require adding fill to the waterfront and pinching the shape of the new building to fit the fan-shaped lot.
During an earlier portion of the meeting, members of the public voiced concerns, support, and in some cases both, for the proposal.
Joanne Boynton, of Belfast, said she agreed with the points raised by Councilor Mike Hurley last week to the effect that the special character of Belfast is worth preserving.
"And what makes Belfast special is its social diversity," she said. "That there are people with small local concerns and people with large local concerns.
Boynton said she has been a fan of the Shipyard. "But at the same time, allowing Front Street to grow so large that it would dominate the waterfront, I think would really be a mistake."
Michael Stein noted that the Front Street parking lot is not heavily used now because it hard to reach. He suggested allowing the construction of the Shipyard's new building over the current parking lot and adding new parking on the property that was home to the Maskers. This location, he said, would be closer to downtown and more likely to be used. He pointed out that building stores on that parcel would be impractical because of floodplain requirements that would force any new building to be elevated 6-8 feet above the ground in the manner of Three Tides.
Turner read a list of statistics related to the Shipyard's operations including an average wage, not including senior management, of $19.34 per hour and noted that employees receive full benefits. Gross wages were just over $4 million last year, he said, the business paid $140,000 in property taxes and donated around $10,000 to local causes.
Sixty-eight percent of the Shipyard's workforce lives in Waldo County, Turner said, and many are in their 20s and 30s. He drew a line from here to internships and vocational schools and the value of a workforce composed of local residents.
"I think everywhere in the United States has shifted back to saying it's OK to go out of high school and start working," he said. "In the early-1980s, it was my impression that you were sort of told you had to go to a four-year school. I don't think that's the case any more."
Turner also offered a rough draft plan for reconfiguring the city-operated Thompson's Wharf, which now surrounded by Shipyard property. The recommendation was not part of the current proposal.
Councilor Eric Sanders asked for an idea of how much the owners of large yachts are paying to have their boats overhauled at Front Street Shipyard and how that relates to the global economy.
"We're in a recession still, and a lot of us are sort of in that mindset, and it doesn't appear that some of these folks with the yachts suffer from that affliction," he said. The comment drew laughter from the audience. Sanders asked for figures that would give some perspective on why the new building was needed.
Turner said the global economy does affect the high-end yacht business but that the changes manifest as a shift between new boat purchases and retrofits. In a good economy wealthy people buy new boats, he explained, but when things are less certain as they have been in the past few years, a buyer who would have commissioned a new $18 million yacht might buy a used $5 million boat and put another $5 million having it restored.
"Our business is actually relatively stabile because we switch gears between new construction and repairs," he said. "If you were only a boatbuilding yard, you would be in dire straits right now."
On actual costs, Turner said the 106-foot yacht Stoneface has been at the Shipyard for about a year and will have undergone around $5 million in work by the time it departs in late December. Another large vessel, the 86-foot Josephina, was at the Shipyard for around three months and underwent repairs totaling around $300,000, he said.
"So, some people spend some money," he said. "Thankfully, for all of us."
Hurley said he recently looked at the 2006 Wakeag Landing proposal that the city approved for the site now occupied by Front Street Shipyard and said he was "really glad," in hindsight, that it fell through. The Ward 4 councilor said he still has some concerns about the city parking lot, the former Maskers building and Thompson's Wharf, each of which, he said, constituted big subjects and together a "really big subject."
"That said I was driving by and somebody said, 'I can't believe we got this lucky with Front Street Shipyard. We have all these people working here and we dodged a bullet with these condos,' and I'm 100-percent on with that," Hurley said. "We're glad for you guys, that you've got a growth problem is terrific and we'll figure a way to work it out."
City Planner Wayne Marshall recommended the approval process be split into two phases as the original redevelopment was — for marine and land aspects. The idea met with resistance from Councilor Roger Lee, who all but begged that they be combined to avoid a process that could take six to eight months. Based on Turner's testimony that one aspect won't work without the other, Lee argued that it shouldn't be necessary to treat the parts separately. He also noted that the Council knows what the building would look like, which was not the case at the outset of the last round of approvals.
Marshall said parking would likely be the biggest hang-up. The Shipyard is governed by contract zoning, which allows for negotiated terms, but Marshall said the parking on the business' property is already at capacity.
"If you're looking at adding 50 employees [and potentially eliminating the municipal lot], the question is how are they going to address putting in as many 150 parking spaces, give or take. Maybe 100 ... " he said. "If they're prepared to do that in the next three weeks, the two could go on a concurrent schedule."
On Thursday, the Council also:
• Heard a recommendation for a long-term tree management plan from the city's tree warden Didier Bonner-Ganter, who recommended hiring a professional arborist either as a city position or a part-time consultant to oversee the job of what he termed "managing the urban forest." The tree warden has traditionally been an unpaid, appointed position.
• Heard from Laurie Allen, of Belfast, who asked the Council to include Seaview Terrace, where she lives, in the Northport Avenue Tax Increment Financing district so that tax proceeds could be used to make improvements to drainage in the low-lying area she says is at a high risk for flooding.
Penobscot Bay Pilot reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at email@example.com