BELFAST, Maine — Walkers have to be intrepid to make their way from the city’s downtown business district and parks all the way to the footbridge that spans the Passagassawaukeag River.
From the Belfast Boathouse on the eastern end, it’s a 3,500-foot long scramble around warehouses and freezers, across some emerald-green parks, past gift shops and restaurants and, finally, around an abandoned sardine factory.
If the pedestrians arrive at the Veterans Memorial Footbridge, they’ll find a recently restored $4 million span that is illuminated by graceful streetlights and is popular with fishermen and walkers alike. But some may lose heart before they make it.
City officials are dedicated to making that journey a little more logical. The long-discussed Belfast Coastal Walkway Project is moving forward at last, and construction should begin next spring, Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall said Friday.
“There’s no cohesive path or walkway that connects this section of the waterfront,” Marshall said, pointing at a colorful map that shows some of the challenges and possibilities that will be faced by landscape designers. “The waterfront has a diverse range of activities that draw people to the water. The question now is, how to connect them and lead people to one of the city’s real jewels, which is the footbridge.”
Belfast is armed with $450,000 to build the walkway — $200,000 from the city and a $250,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation.
According to Marshall, the city intends to send out requests for proposals very soon to solicit bids from landscape design firms.
Marshall’s map shows some of the city’s plans for the walkway, which will incorporate a 10- to 12-foot wide paved segment running from Thompson’s Wharf to Heritage Park. That is the most pricey element, Marshall said, with its 1,650 feet of asphalt and lighting expected to cost about $350,000.
Another segment is much cheaper — and temporary. Because Belfast officials aren’t certain what will happen with the privately-owned site of the former Stinson Canning sardine factory, they will construct the walkway along the right-of-way of the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad tracks with crushed rock and temporary lighting. That will cost between $12,000 and $13,000, Marshall said.
Other segments involve building a sidewalk on Front Street near the Belfast Boathouse and a connecting strip of walkway to get from Front Street to Heritage Park.
Elected officials have been raring to get going on the coastal walkway project for awhile, Marshall said, and it was originally hoped to be constructed this past spring.
“At one point, I was told the goal was to do this yesterday,” he said.
But the walkway plans were derailed when councilors started looking at the bigger picture of downtown and waterfront development. Belfast owns 18 acres of land close to the waterfront, and officials decided that it is a perfect time to look closely at how to best develop its property.
“Whatever we do with the walkway, we want it to fit with downtown,” said City Manager Joseph Slocum. “We want it to fit with the harbor … We don’t want to build the walkway until we can pull this master plan together.”
Toward that end, the city is soliciting another request for proposal — this one for a downtown waterfront master plan, an idea that is much more complex than the coastal walkway. Marshall has sent requests to 19 firms in four states, and expected that the city would pick a firm to do the work at the end of August.
Marshall said there are five main components of the plan: usage of public property, development for some of the privately-owned property, marine improvements, street and street scape improvements and a better layout for Front Street.
“We want to better encourage people to visit all sections of downtown,” he said.
The city councilors decided this week that the proposals also would need to look at potential for railroad use along the waterfront, he said.
Marshall said that he figured the master plan would take nearly a year to create, and once done, will set Belfast up to be more eligible for grant funding.
“You want to make sure it’s current and reflecting what the present ideas are,” he said. “Things aren’t static. Ideas evolve.”