One hundred years ago, a stroll along Belfast’s waterfront was like a trade show of the era’s maritime businesses. There was a busy wharf, ship-building yards, sail lofts and chandleries to outfit the ships, a railroad station linking the port to the rest of the state and country, a sardine packing plant and warehouses for storing freight.
By midcentury, the waterfront’s character had changed from maritime to food processing, most notably dominated by two poultry processing plants.
This year, Belfast is poised to make a return to the 21st century version of a working waterfront. A forum scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 11 at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center takes up that topic. Participants include some of the veteran players who have made a living looking to the sea in Belfast and some of the newer entrepreneurs who plan to help revive the town’s historic maritime ties.
Whether Belfast’s success can be replicated in other coastal towns is not clear, but the city has done some things to set the table for growth. First among them is valuing the waterfront. Twenty years ago, city government designated the waterfront as an asset, which was a big step, given its then blighted, industrial state. Zoning that encouraged water-related business followed.
The most dramatic step, one that municipal resources alone would not have accomplished, was the removal of a defunct chicken processing plant. MBNA, the credit card lender that expanded to Belfast in the mid-1990s (later bought by Bank of America), undertook the massive project from its own coffers and donated most of the waterfront land back to the city in the form of a park.
A yacht-building business, specializing in outfitting cabins with high-end woodworking, soon opened nearby. The owner of a waterfront fuel business expanded his existing marina. More recently, the locally owned tugboat business sold, but continued to operate from the harbor. The boatyard that has operated for decades, storing and servicing lobster and recreational craft, has continued to thrive.
The most recent development has been the purchase of the former Stinson Seafood plant by two Maine boat builders and a third company which they will transform into the Front Street Shipyard, a business that will service yachts and boats.
City leaders are excited about the development because it brings jobs, expands the tax base and will bring well-to-do boat owners or their crews to town to spend money in restaurants and shops. But they also are thrilled that a long-blighted area at one terminus of the waterfront, near the old Route 1 bridge, will soon be busy again.
The shipyard plan is being greeted as an anchor to the year-round economy. And it definitively stamps Belfast’s identity — once again — as one tied to the sea.