In the hallowed fishing village of Gloucester, nothing appears more sacred than the sea.
For centuries, it has been the source of the most bountiful catch of fish ever recorded, and it has also swallowed up thousands of local fishermen.
For that reason, perhaps, the most protective neighborhood in Gloucester is a peninsula where locals say tradition and family come before anything, including millions in developer dollars.
They call this warren of streets “The Fort’’ - harking back to the garrison that was erected nearly 300 years ago to protect the inner harbor from a possible attack by French insurgents.
But if some private developers and city officials have their way, the Fort’s rhythm could change in the coming years. Billionaire Jim Davis, who owns New Balance, and Sheree DeLorenzo - who co-owns a nearby function hall, restaurant, and dock with Davis - recently spent $6.5 million to buy the former Birds Eye factory - a two-acre, waterfront site where flash-freezing of food was first tried in the 1920s.
Davis and DeLorenzo have renamed the site Beauport Gloucester, and have applied to the city to rezone the property to allow a 102-room, four-story hotel that would employ 100 people and bring hundreds of thousands of new tax dollars into the city each year. The proposal excludes condos from the hotel, and grants the public access to the property’s one-acre beach.
Davis did not respond to interview requests, but his partner, DeLorenzo, said the site would draw tourists, visitors who attend weddings on Cape Ann, and travelers who do business at the city’s industrial park. “It’s a spectacular location, the beach,’’ she said. “We want to attract guests here year-round, and that location would attract guests year-round.’’
But within the Fort - where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business and where families sip their coffee and eat meals along the beach - few support the project, with many believing a hotel would be the first step toward gentrifying the area.
“People fought for years to protect our working waterfront,’’ said Jim Tarantino, who traces his family back five generations in the Fort. “If they rezone this piece of property, that’s the big domino - that’s the prize and it will break people’s hearts.’’
These days, fewer than 50 single family and double-deckers sit in The Fort, coexisting with a hodgepodge of windowless concrete bunkers where everything from lobsters to fish are hauled from the water and processed. Since people and businesses started moving in, traffic has always been a problem: Just one road serves as the neighborhood’s entrance and exit.
While hotels were popular in the city a century ago and motels dot coastal roads, Gloucester has had a difficult time persuading a developer to invest in a hotel. In recent years, two proposed hotels were permitted but have yet to be built.
Those sites were far from Gloucester’s downtown, and The Fort - where neighborhood opposition fended off developers’ efforts in the last few years to build a hotel at the Birds Eye site.
Now, however, city officials and business leaders have lined up in support of the latest proposal - a plan they say would give new life to a shuttered two-acre site and provide jobs and new tax revenue. In recent years, cash-strapped Gloucester has had to close fire stations and a school, and has also rebuilt its water and sewer facilities, leaving residents with some of the highest water and sewer bills in the nation.
“No is not an option here,’’ Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said, when asked about the proposed hotel. “There has to be compromise on any of these types of projects, and this proposal today represents a compromise. It’s limited in scope and takes out the most controversial thing of all - which is condos.’’
Along the harborfront and on the sloped hills of The Fort, people use the word condo sparingly. Whenever waterfront development is discussed, someone invariably mentions Newburyport or Salem or Newport, R.I., where city officials have allowed condos along the water. For decades, Gloucester Harbor has been protected by its state-backed Designated Port Area status, which prohibits restaurants, marinas and condos.
Ann Malloy, who runs a fish processing company and a plant that converts fish gurry to fertilizer, said she is worried that a hotel developer would have little tolerance for a noisy business that produces fish odor and generates tractor-trailer traffic at all hours. “They could potentially start forcing businesses out of here. Any impact could be detrimental,’’ said Malloy.
Kirk said that the proposal - which needs the approval of the City Council to move forward - is the only project currently planned for the area, and if approved it would not affect the harbor’s designated port status and would not change the way existing maritime businesses operate.
She added that approval would not usher in an era of waterfront condos.
“We’re never going to convert the working waterfront to condos. The DPA is not in jeopardy whatsoever,’’ said Kirk, who believes residents would welcome infrastructure improvements such as water, sewer, and new sidewalks that come with a new hotel.
DeLorenzo, who does not plan to ask the city for a subsidized tax rate, promised that the hotel would be a good neighbor and coexist with the maritime businesses across the street. “We can live together as neighbors in the Fort. It’s not going to change; it’s going to thrive,’’ she said.
Within The Fort, neighbors are gearing up for a long fight. The Hold The Fort group has hired an attorney and in the coming weeks, it plans to present an alternative overlay district that would site a hotel downtown, blocks away from the Fort.
Scott Memhard, who owns Cape Pond Ice, is one of the few business owners in the Fort who support the proposed hotel.
“It’s not going to be an easy fit, but I’m sure if everyone works together we can make it happen. It’s been sitting empty so long, it’s a crime that it’s dragging everybody down,’’ he said.
Over at the Fort Square Cafe, Rusty Shatford discussed the proposal with Salvi Benson over a cup of coffee. Benson, who earned local celebrity status as the all-time winner of the Greasy Pole Contest at the St. Peter’s Fiesta, grew up in the Fort and spent much of his youth on Pavilion Beach. He believes a hotel would forever change the small set of streets. Said Benson: “They’re going to take the neighborhood out of the neighborhood.”