They’re calling it Beauport Gloucester, and the plans would make it the largest project for the downtown in decades — a $25 million, four-story, 101-room waterfront hotel on the site of the former Birds Eye plant.
Last week, after more than a year of debate, city councilors unanimously approved the hotel that would be built by billionaire Jim Davis, who owns New Balance, and Sheree DeLorenzo, who operates Cruiseport Gloucester.
While the hotel will provide an economic jolt to the downtown — it expects to hire 160 full-time workers and will pay an estimated $200,000 a year in taxes to the city — it was opposed by some neighborhood residents who believe that it will add traffic to the already congested streets, and will change the character of the small patch of land known as the Fort.
“It’s going to be a playground for the rich,” said Laurel Tarantino, who has lived in the Fort for 24 years and worries about the neighborhood losing its working-class roots.
In the Fort’s warren of streets, windowless warehouses sit across from modest homes, and 18-wheel trucks squeeze by fish lorries at all hours of the day. Over the last year, Tarantino and other residents told city officials that tourists would not appreciate the sounds of trucks and the smell of fish coming out of the Fort.
For Mayor Carolyn Kirk, though, the issue was larger than a hotel coexisting in a residential and commercial neighborhood. She has called the old Birds Eye factory site, the place where flash freezing was first tried, a blight that limited the potential of the city’s waterfront.
“Their fears are unfounded,” Kirk said of the Fort residents who opposed the project. “This is about jobs and investment and a working waterfront.’'
Work on adding new water and sewer pipes is expected to begin in July, and the entire project is expected to take two years to complete.
The cash-strapped city, which has more than $100 million in proposed infrastructure improvements, has seen its fishing industry nearly collapse in the last 20 years because of strict federal fishing regulations.
In the last five years, Kirk has looked toward the harbor for new revenue. Currently, just 2 percent of the city’s taxes come from waterfront property at Gloucester Harbor. Kirk sees a future harbor ringed with high-tech marine companies, research institutes, and support businesses, such as a hotel, that can make up part of the infrastructure.
The city once had several hotels, but has not had one in decades. And, while two permits were issued for hotels in recent years, neither was built.
Bruce Tobey, a former mayor and current city councilor, said he has been trying to get a hotel built in the city for the last 20 years. “This is a unique opportunity for the community to evolve. It becomes a key piece of economic structure for new growth,” he said.
City councilor Greg Verga said the hotel would help reshape the downtown, and also offer jobs in the city. “It’s an opportunity for anyone seeking employment. It will spark new life in the neighborhood. It’s progress.”
The project will include $7.5 million in neighborhood infrastructure improvements, such as adding new water and sewer pipes and widening the street opposite the planned hotel. New sidewalks and streetlights will also be installed. Beauport Gloucester will pay $2 million toward the upgrade, with state grants covering $3 million, and the city paying the remaining $2.5 million.
Davis, of New Balance, could not be reached for comment. DeLorenzo, his business partner, said she expected that the hotel would serve area businesses, tourists, and people visiting for weddings. The planned 25,000-square-foot lodge will include a conference room, a restaurant, and a swimming pool.