, Newburyport, MA

December 6, 2013

Harbor plan moving ahead


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NEWBURYPORT -- Members of the Budget and Finance Committee last night voted 3-0 in favor of a financial transfer that will serve as an initial step in a plan to expand the harbormaster's headquarters on the downtown waterfront.

As a result of the vote, a measure to transfer $134,200 will be sent to the City Council for action, possibly Monday night. The mechanics of the transfer proposes to take $134,200 from "harbormaster retained earnings" to "capital outlay harbormaster facility."

For years the Harbormaster has occupied a small, single-story red building at the eastern end of the city's downtown boardwalk. It's located on the waterfront near the Custom House Museum.

Members of the Harbor Commission in recent months have concluded that the headquarters, which overlooks a dock to which the Harbormaster's boats are tied, needs expansion and improvement. The plan ran into some opposition at a recent City Council meeting, where a handful of residents questioned the proposal.

The Harbor Commission would like to add restrooms and showers so that the city will be more attractive choice for transient boaters. Also, bathrooms facilities would be a welcome addition for visitors to the city and for the harbormaster's staff itself, city officials say.

Commission members want access to the $134,200 so they can acquire professional guidance on where to site the improved facility and how large it should be.

One question in the minds of veteran harbor watches is whether a larger version would be built on the same site, or be moved further east along the boardwalk.

Though some city officials have projected that the headquarters might be expanded from 450 square feet to perhaps 900 square feet, such a decision has not been made.

Nor has a determination been reached on whether the structure would have one story or two.

"There is a great need for this and I am confident the Harbor Commission can move this idea through the public process," said Ed Cameron, chairperson of the Budget and Finance Committee.

Committee member Bob Cronin also spoke in favor of expansion, and supported the action of sending the transfer measure to the council.

Brad Duffin, chairperson of the Harbor Commission, said the average transient boater spends close to $70 per day in a community in which the boat is docked.

Some modest-sized harbor communities successful in attracting thousands of boaters per summer can generate more than $1 million per year in ancillary spending, city officials say.

The Harbor Commission has been communicating with both an architectural firm and a design company as it pursues its goal of an expanded facility.

If the council approves the transfer, the Harbor Commission can retain professional help and acquire a clearer idea of what can be done, and at what cost.

The harbormaster's office generates more than $300,000 a year in revenue from boater permits, and thus the project is in the position to get started without the use of taxpayer funds.

City officials say that if the proposed facility moves forward, a revenue bond could be floated based, at least in part, on the promise of revenues from the harbormaster's treasury.

Unlike the construction project that the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority has been pursuing, the harbormaster headquarters expansion appears to have widespread backing.

Cameron said that during campaigning this fall, he encountered no opposition to the expansion idea.

City Councilor Barry Connell, who attended the meeting though not a committee member, said, "We are obviously a waterfront community with an economic interest in those who visit the city.

"Boaters do research on where they want to dock. Our harbor is difficult to get through, so we should be ready to offer them useful services like bathrooms and showers once they arrive here."