BELFAST, Maine — When Thomas Kittredge first started to commute from Bangor to Belfast four years ago, the panorama below the Route 1 bridge over the Passagassawakeag River was hardly scenic.
At that time, the decrepit remains of the old Stinson sardine canning factory took up prime real estate on the Belfast waterfront. Private efforts to develop the property into a condominium complex had failed, succeeding only in creating a lawsuit. Meanwhile, municipal officials were trying to pursue “slum and blight” status for the property in the hopes of one day procuring governmental grants to eventually revitalize the area.
“Seeing that big chunk of waterfront with underutilized assets, no jobs and no tax revenue was my first impression of Belfast on my first year of the job,” Kittredge, the city’s development director, said.
But that started to change quickly once the partners behind Front Street Shipyard came forward to the city with a different vision for the waterfront. They were interested in the four acres of flat land and the relatively good deep-water access at the site and wanted to develop it into a world-class marina and shipyard.
After opening for business in 2011, the shipyard has grown steadily. It employs 104 people in the five green-sided buildings that neatly line Front Street. Ten other people work at its new Bucksport manufacturing site constructing high-performance patrol boats.
In the summers, people strolling on the new Belfast Harborwalk can look at the boats docked at the marina and watch as workers use the largest travel lift north of Rhode Island to haul massive yachts out of the water to work on them.
“In some ways, they’re the face of a large part of the Belfast economy because of their location,” Kittredge said this week. “Front Street Shipyard is emblematic of the resurgence of Belfast. It’s very visible. It’s brought new vitality to the waterfront.”
That’s why he’s especially pleased that USDA Rural Development has just chosen to give the shipyard a $10 million business and industry guaranteed loan designed to support its boat construction and marina operations.
“My understanding of the loan is that it’s helping them to transition from the start-up phase,” Kittredge said. “I think the loan gives them even more of a sense of legitimacy — that they’re going to be here for the long haul. Hopefully, forever.”
The shipyard builds and retrofits boats as big as 200 feet long at its Belfast facility. It didn’t take the business long to make a name for itself, and the company attracts multimillion dollar boats to the yard, which is one of the largest yacht facilities on the East Coast and the largest north of Newport, Rhode Island. In 2013, the company was named the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association Boatyard of the Year.
J.B. Turner, president of the shipyard, said that the loan will give the business permanent, long-term bank financing. It means that the company can pay off its first investors and move toward future projects with more financial security. The next project on his mind is the construction of Building 6, a 69-foot-tall structure in Belfast that will be big enough to allow a new, 485-ton capacity travel lift to easily go inside.
“We have all the permitting in place with the city,” Turner said. “Now, all I need is money.”
Building 6 will be constructed on land either leased or purchased from the city of Belfast that is a municipal parking lot. City planner Wayne Marshall said this week that the City Council signed off on the request to use city land this way back in January, and that the new 26,800-square-foot building would directly abut Building 5.
Beyond the construction of Building 6, some city councilors and others have expressed desires that the Belfast waterfront not turn into a business monoculture that includes only the shipyard. To that end, when the former train depot that most recently has been used as the Belfast Maskers’ theater is torn down and the site cleaned up next year, the City Council’s preference is that the property be used for small-scale commercial development, according to Marshall.
“The guidance has been that this will not be an area that will be sold to a single party, like the shipyard,” he said.
Virginia Manuel, the USDA Rural Development state director, said Thursday that the guaranteed loan to the shipyard is the largest her agency can make and is one of only two $10 million loan guarantees made to Maine companies in recent memory.
“The big picture for USDA Rural Development in Maine and the country is to support the resurgence of manufacturing,” Manuel said. “With this, we are fulfilling frankly a big priority of mine, to support Maine’s manufacturing industry. When you get a dynamic business like the Front Street Shipyard in a little city like Belfast, this is exactly the kind of industry in Maine we want to support.”
She said that the loan should allow the shipyard to add 7 new jobs, and that the average wage there pays $20.91 per hour.
“These are good jobs,” Manuel said. “Manufacturing jobs tend to pay higher wages. We love that. A liveable wage for rural Maine folks.”
Kittredge agrees and said that when he drives to work, he sees a working, thriving shipyard where there used to be abandoned buildings.
“It’s a world-class facility, and not just condos, but jobs and economic activity,” Kittredge said. “And what’s more quintessentially Maine than working on boats?”