GLOUCESTER — Scott Memhard stood on the dock at Cape Pond Ice, the iconic icehouse his family owns, and looked out at Gloucester’s port, which was dead on this afternoon.
There was absolutely no movement among Gloucester’s famous fishing fleet.
“They used to be lined up waiting to ice up,” Memhard said of the boats that have filled their holds with Cape Pond Ice for 166 years to keep their catch cold at sea.
“Yesterday, we had one boat.” He stepped back inside a small office and checked the invoices. “Today, we haven’t had any.”
But as he stood there, looking out at the scenic harbor, Memhard was more optimistic about the future of Cape Pond Ice than he has been in a long time, just a year after he was ready to throw in the towel. Now, he says, he’s been “thrown a life preserver.”
Shrinking government catch quotas — particularly on haddock and cod — have decimated much of the Gloucester fleet, leaving key support businesses such as Cape Pond Ice struggling to survive. Last year, Memhard put the massive waterfront property on the market and was planning to walk away from the business that he and his father bought in 1983. The company’s famous “Coolest Guys Around” T-shirts — which are to Cape Ann what Black Dog T-shirts are to Martha’s Vineyard — looked like they would become a thing of the past.
But thanks to some creative debt refinancing, political wrangling, and cautious flexibility from state regulators, Memhard is standing on a pier of opportunity, one that many in Gloucester see as a step into its future, where the port will preserve Gloucester’s ability to fish while dealing with the reality that many of its core support businesses are unable to survive on fishing alone.
Memhard was able to refinance his debt with help from MassDevelopment, a state authority that aids business development, but he was still left with a major catch.
Cape Pond Ice, like most of the large businesses that make up the fishing infrastructure, is inside a zone called the Designated Port Area, defined by a 1978 state statute that dictates how certain marine-industrial properties can be used. In short, the goal is to preserve important parcels for the infrastructure necessary to support commercial fishing — the icehouses and mechanics and welders and processing plants and auction houses that keep the fleet running — by requiring that 50 percent of any parcel be used for that mission.
The problem is that fishing-related orders now account for just 10-12 percent of Cape Pond Ice’s business, down from 80 percent in the 1980s.
When Memhard put the property on the market, he asked for something unprecedented in Gloucester: to be removed from the Designated Port Area. Though he had the backing of the mayor and the City Council, he did not get that full exemption from the state. But thanks to the work of state Senator Bruce Tarr and Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, he did get some flexibility from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which allowed him to explore other uses for the large and underused facility as long as it maintained the ability to make ice for fishing boats.
That leaves Memhard with plenty of real estate to explore new development. Ideas that have been thrown around include a brewery, a curling rink, and a satellite campus for Endicott College. While it’s tough to pitcure a college campus on the blue-collar docks, the area, which is known to locals as The Fort, is slated to go through a big transformation soon. Just across the street from Cape Pond Ice, on a parcel outside the Designated Port Area, developers are building a $25 million, 101-room waterfront hotel on the site of the former Birdseye plant, the largest project to hit downtown Gloucester in decades.
Carolyn Kirk, the mayor of Gloucester, has been a huge supporter of giving Cape Pond Ice, and businesses like it within the Designated Port Area, room to diversify and grow.
“The economic debate in Gloucester used to be fishing versus tourism, and we have gone so far past that in terms of the sophistication of our dialogue,” she said. “This is a dialogue driven by values. We value the fishing industry. We value the properties being sustainable on their own. If that means a diverse use there, that makes sense.”
Treating the Designated Port Area as a sacred cow that can’t be touched is not a dialogue rooted in practicality, she said. “An identity question for Gloucester is: Do we want to be in the fishing game anymore? And the answer, without a doubt, is yes. So we can’t lose the cogs if you want to bet on the future. Once the working waterfront parcels are gobbled up, they’re gone. They’re not coming back. This is a way of holding onto it, at scale, as a way of saying, ‘Yes, we want to remain in this business.’ ”
The truth is that Gloucester, which once had many icehouses, would have none had Memhard and his father not begun to diversify long ago, thinking they could build a little on the core — and seemingly permanent — fishing customers. At the time the current plant was built, in 1945, a newspaper article described the facility’s ability to produce 300 tons of ice a day as crucial to a booming fishing fleet that was so desperate for ice, some boats were forced to go as far as Nova Scotia to “ice up.”
Now, the bulk of their business comes from everything ice-related. From bag ice for coolers, to crystal-clear ice for sculptures and bars, from commercial ice used to chill concrete, to ice luges for cold shots at parties — if it involves ice, Memhard has tried to get in the game. He’s been wondering how they can maybe get in on the mania surrounding the mega-hit “Frozen,” the Disney animated film that features an ice palace and a main character who cuts ice from frozen ponds, the way they did on Cape Pond in Rockport back in the 1800s.
Walking around the plant with Memhard — they still call it “the pond” — it is clear the man has great pride in ice and its role as the unsung hero that allowed for the birth of cold beer and ice cream. Company literature prominently features quotes from Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book, “The Perfect Storm” — “Commercial fishing wouldn’t be possible without ice” — and points out that what doomed the crew of the Andrea Gail was not the Perfect Storm, but the fact that they didn’t have enough ice to keep their valuable catch cold while they waited out the storm at sea, so they tried to go for market.
When they filmed the movie version of “The Perfect Storm,” Cape Pond Ice T-shirts got plenty of screen time, and each time it’s shown on television, they see a much-needed uptick in orders, Memhard said.
As he reached down to fold a mussed T-shirt in one of the bins, three tourists walked in the door, wondering if they could have a tour of the plant.
Certainly, Memhard said. For $10 ($8 for seniors and children), he’ll take you on the tour himself. Whatever it takes to keep Cape Pond Ice cold.