In Manchester, the issue of building a proper Harbormaster’s Office came up at both the Harbor Advisory Committee meeting last week and at the Downtown Improvement Committee (DIP) meeting this week (Tuesday morning).
First, context. Since his arrival to his position in 2012, Manchester Harbormaster Bion Pike has operated out of a windowless, 12-by-14-foot office in the basement of Town Hall. It's neither the windowless part or the diminutive size that are the issue. It’s really about proximity to the water, and fast access to the Harbormaster’s boat at the docks off Reed Park on Beach Street, especially in the event of an emergency call from offshore.
“You don’t ask this of any other public safety office,” said Pike at Tuesday's DIP meeting. “It’s like asking the police department to respond to emergencies by running to Richdale’s where their cruisers are parked.”
So why is the Harbormaster’s office at Town Hall, when nearly every other coastal Massachusetts town has its Harbormaster’s office located proximate to a local dock? It’s likely tied to the simple fact that long before Pike’s arrival, the harbormaster role was part of the police department. Indeed, the Chief of Police in Manchester held a dual position of harbormaster and chief as an extension of his enforcement of public safety.
Today, the Harbormaster’s role goes beyond public safety. It includes planning, support of local commercial fishing infrastructure, coordination with state funding for key projects, management of dredging, coordination with the US Army Corps of Engineers activity in local waters, and the harbormaster is also the local regulatory agent for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Three years ago, a steering committee was tasked with recommending a location for the new Harbormaster’s Office. In the end, Reed Park became the focus, and state grant funding was ID’d to pick up 80 percent of the $400,000 cost estimated by the engineering firm working with the subcommittee. Then, in 2019, the project came to a standstill after the Tuck’s Point access dock failure, and swept all focus away from the discussion of new Harbormaster digs. Today, the project remains at a standstill. Pike said once Tuck’s Point project is complete, it will be time to reopen the Harbormaster office discussion, with public input and a reactivation of a subcommittee that would draw from the Planning Board and the Harbor Advisory Committee. That time, he said, is here.
The new building could be located in the exact footprint of an existing line of Arborvitae hedges at the rear parameter of the park, along the MBTA Commuter Rail tracks. Under the plan, the Arborvitae could be removed and a new building erected in its place. Pike said his vision would be for a 16-by-26-foot, one story office, which would be the same footprint of the Arborvitae, and lower in height.
DIP members asked if a new Harbormaster’s Office downtown might also house needed permanent public bathrooms. Pike said they could, but public bathrooms were not central—public safety was.
Currently the Harbormaster’s boat is housed at the Reed Park recreational docks, built three years ago and managed as paid visitor slips. (Morss Pier is reserved for local commercial boats and the Manchester Boat Club). Revenue from visiting boaters has been a growing part of the Harbor Usage Fund’s increasing success, said Pike. The first year of charging visitors to tie up at Reed Park saw revenues of $18K. Three years later, so far into the current season, it’s jumped to $41K. That doesn’t account for the money brought into local businesses from these visitors, who are estimated to spend $25 downtown for every $1 spent on docking.
“The visitors to our Reed Park docks contribute right now to the maintenance of our harbor,” said Pike. “It’s been a real win.”
DIP member Gordon Brewster, a project manager with a large engineering firm and a member of the Memorial School Building Committee, offered to meet with Pike and prepare visual plans to support a productive public discussion. Carley Cook, another DIP member who served on the original subcommittee exploring a new Harbormaster’s Office, said drawings would be a big help, especially if they showed the proposed building would respect the open space at Reed Park, and show a building that “is not an eyesore.”
Next Up, the Local Rapid Recovery Plan Program, the technical grant (which provided access to professional consulting, not money) awarded to the towns of Essex and Manchester several months ago. Following a semi-final summary report from Dodson & Flinker, the grant consultants late last month, a public forum has been scheduled to discuss six specific projects prioritized as part of the program.
The forum will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29 via Zoom to share details on a number of priority potential shared projects to support Essex and Manchester business districts, and how they might move forward. Six projects will be shared and, based on feedback in the forum, three will be selected for the final report by Dodson & Flinker, de Oct.8. Anyone interested may join.
It was Manchester Town Planner Sue Brown who led the charge on applying for the grant last Spring with then Essex Town Planner Matt Coogan (who left this summer to become Boxford Town Administrator). The program has been working away with regular meetings between businesses and members of key town boards and administration. For Essex, Town Administrator Brenhan Zubricki and new Town Planner Dana Menon have been regulars. So have Donna Roy and Jodi Harris of the Essex Merchants Group. For Manchester, retailers have been regular participants, as have Planning Board member Christine Delisio and Linda Crosby of the Downtown Improvement Committee.
“The final report will contain vetted ideas generated by businesses, residents and steering board members over four months and identify how Manchester and Essex might work together to support downtown businesses in overcoming lasting challenges of the pandemic,” Brown said. “This is an excellent opportunity to support the recovery.”
This technical grant is unique, and its lead to some interesting work by the teams. Dodson & Flinker, which specializes in community planning fand has worked with hundreds of communities in the Commonwealth, served as moderators for discussions on pain points for each town’s downtown businesses—from tackling quiet seasonal periods of business during winter to permanent additions to downtown retail that provide an easy, shoppable experience for customers to “liaison-ing” between business and town halls.