Can the nation’s oldest seaport reinvent itself?
The story of Gloucester trying to find its next act is not a new one. For years, the nation’s oldest seaport, like so many others, has struggled to reinvent itself in the shadow of a fading fishing industry.
But several developments in recent weeks could serve as a meaningful catalyst for change in the post-fishing economy.
Last week, the much-talked-about Beauport Hotel — a luxury 94-room facility and the city’s only large-scale hotel — opened on the site of the former Birds Eye fish-freezing plant, featuring three conference rooms to lure business travelers, along with a large restaurant and a rooftop pool with views of the harbor to entice tourists.
The hotel followed the May opening of the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy, a one-year certificate program for high school graduates that’s an extension of the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, founded in 2013 by biotech entrepreneur Gregory L. Verdine to study marine genetics.
For this North Shore community, the waterfront additions are an important example of what they might call casting a line and waiting for a bite. Influential investors hope a growing marine biotechnology sector will support the working waterfront, not with fishing, but with year-round jobs rooted in science and tourism. A hotel like the Beauport only adds to the appeal.
“That was my cue to build a hotel and say this is going to take hold,” said the Beauport’s owner, Sheree Zizik, whose approximately $30 million property is being financed by New Balance chairman Jim Davis, who has a house in Gloucester.
But like the institute, it has gained some acceptance as the city recognizes that the need for a sound economic base might trump fears about change.
“Fishing is going to be our heritage and first priority,” Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said. But, she added, “we’re moving forward.”
The biotechnology sector hasn’t yet taken root enough to influence the city’s economy — even the Marine Genomics Institute is still scouting for a permanent harborside home. But the institute’s investors and leaders say the ability to “sustain Gloucester and the Cape Ann economy for the 21st century and beyond” is central to their mission.
Behind the faith to make biotech work in Gloucester is heavy private investment. The 3,200-square-foot academy was designed for free by George E. Marsh Jr., who owns a home in nearby Essex and is a principal at the Boston architectural firm Payette.
About 14 students have filled the academy’s 20-spot class come September, where they will learn basic skills, like DNA sequencing, to become lab technicians, said Chris Munkholm, executive director.
“Genomics, the modern science of DNA, bringing that science to marine life — the time is right for that,” she said. “A place like Gloucester has so much maritime infrastructure and history, so there’s topics already to study, there’s people to work with.”
The first year has been completely underwritten by “local patrons,” so that the inaugural class won’t have to pay tuition or fees, Munkholm said.
Getting young people interested in biotech helps them see that there is life beyond fishing and is key to making the initiative work in the city, Ken Riehl of the Cape Ann Chamber said.
“The community is pushing for change,” he said. “Not only do we want to encourage people to come here, but our young people to come back and live and work in the Cape Ann community.”
Gloucester fishermen say they’re open to diversity in the city’s economy but want future commerce to be in keeping with the city’s marine history. Vito Giacalone, policy adviser for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said there’s no clear evidence the biotechnology sector is poised to succeed there.
“Biotech is a space that is emerging, [so] then certainly Gloucester should participate in that and should get the benefit of that and should get the commerce, but we also have to recognize that the folks who are in biotech don’t understand the intricacies of what’s ailing the fishing industry,” Giacalone said.
John Bullard, the former mayor of New Bedford, knows a thing or two about the economic challenges that face changing waterfronts. Now the regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Atlantic Region, Bullard said what has happened in Gloucester of late is promising.
“It’s still a working waterfront,” Bullard said. “That still means that Gloucester can develop whale watching, recreational fishing, get into marine [genomics], and seek a balance in what’s called ‘water-enhanced uses,’ like hotels, versus ‘water-dependent use,’ like fishing.”