A big, bold vision for Maine waterfront

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Front Street Shipyard will serve the large-yacht market from the former site of a sardine cannery

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The waterfront in Belfast, Maine, got something of a facelift earlier this year. Crowds gathered to gawk at a spectacle city officials had been waiting nearly 10 years to see —the demolition of the two-story remains of a 13,500-square-foot building that once was part of the Stinson Seafood sardine cannery just south of the Belfast Bridge.

A developer had started demolition in 2006, but the work stopped because of financial problems. “The building looked bombed out,” says Thomas Kittredge, Belfast’s economic development director. “It was a real eyesore. It wasn’t the kind of impression we wanted to convey to visitors.”

Now Kittredge is confident the waterfront will at last be revitalized, an objective the city has been trying to achieve since the cannery closed in 2001 after nearly a century of operation. Salvation was not in the 22 luxury condominiums that were initially planned for the 4-acre property, along with 14,000 square feet of retail and office space, a restaurant, a boat storage and repair facility, and a 62-slip marina. It came in the form of Front Street Shipyard, a full-service yard that aims to serve the large-yacht market. The plan is to open for business in July.

“Some people think we’re nuts for doing this, but sometimes you just have to take a risk,” says JB Turner, Front Street Shipyard’s general manager and the former president and managing partner of Maine-based Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding Co. Turner left Lyman-Morse in January 2010, citing differences of opinion with upper management.

Aside from the demolition, the major initial project at Front Street Shipyard earlier this year entailed building the pier to accommodate a 165-ton Travelift. Turner says 20 floats with water and electricity for 10 or 12 boats are planned for this season. As the development continues, Front Street Shipyard will offer dockage for yachts to 180 feet, with 16 feet of depth at the dock at mean low water.

Turner says he expects to have 15 to 25 mechanics, riggers, carpenters, painters, machinists, fiberglass technicians and other employees on site by the fall. Although the immediate focus is on attracting service work and lining up winter storage contracts, the big-picture plan for the yard includes refits, restorations and custom wood or composite high-end large-yacht construction.

“We want to be able to do virtually anything, and we want to be able to say yes to a large wooden or composite refit or building a new boat in wood or composites,” Turner says. “But you have to take baby steps at first or else risk walking right off the edge of a cliff.”

The idea of starting Front Street Shipyard got traction in March 2010 at an Applebee’s over drinks and dinner after a Maine Built Boats meeting, shortly after Turner had left Lyman-Morse. Turner was there with J. Steven White, owner of Brooklin (Maine) Boat Yard. “We were talking about boatyards, like we always do,” Turner says, “and we started kicking around the idea for a yard that could handle large yachts.”

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The Stinson Seafood land was available. A series of real estate developers had expressed an interest in building condos at the site, but did not move forward because the residential real estate market collapsed. White contacted Taylor Allen, owner of Rockport (Maine) Marine. Like White, Allen had seen a need for a yard capable of handling large yachts and commercial vessels. Both men had been poking around for such a property for several years without success.

“For a long time I’ve wanted to be able to compete for some of the larger boat projects, and I can’t do it [at Rockport Marine],” Allen says. “I’ve been looking for a bigger property to expand into. I’ve got no intention of closing my yard here, but the idea was to create another location where we could service larger boats and do new-boat construction and restorations on a much larger scale.”

Rockport Marine is on 1 acre of land, Brooklin Boat Yard on about 2 acres. Neither could expand, and no other yard in the area was ideally suited to large yachts. Starting Front Street Shipyard simply made good sense, Turner says.

Turner, White and Allen lined up three other partners to help fund the development, including Ken Priest, president of Kenway Corp., a custom composite manufacturing and field service company in Augusta that manufactures composite components for the marine, transportation and renewable energy industries, among others. Turner, 47, had worked with Priest on projects with Lyman-Morse and after leaving the company had gone to work for Kenway as a project engineer.

“When I spoke with Ken, he thought a full-service boatyard in Belfast was a great idea, and he wanted to become a partner,” Turner says. “We’ve discussed the possibility of Kenway being our principal fiberglass shop. Why build a huge new fiberglass shop when we have a partner just down the road with a 43,000-square-foot facility?”

The partners paid cash for the property, closing in January. During the real estate bubble the property was priced sky-high, but the housing crash and a lack of qualified and interested buyers caused the price to tumble. “We were able to reach a realistic price point,” Turner says.

On flat land — something of a rarity on the Maine coast — and within easy walking distance of downtown Belfast’s amenities, the yard at the northwest end of Penobscot Bay is well suited to the crews of big yachts. “The captains and crews of large yachts are looking for a town or a city with restaurants, pubs, movie theaters, art galleries, shops, banks and other conveniences so they can live their lives when they’re not working on the yacht,” Turner says.

It might appear that White and Allen — already the owners of boatyards — have created a competitor for themselves in helping establish Front Street Shipyard. To a certain extent, that’s the case, but Allen says the prospect of increased competition from a new top- quality boatyard is welcome and good for the region.

“I hope Front Street Shipyard will be a competitor with us,” he says. “The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that there aren’t enough good boatyards in the area. The industry needs more of them.”

Starting a boatyard in a down economy could be construed as a bold move. Turner, though, says it was important to act while the land was available and could be purchased at a reasonable price. He also says there is every indication that a recovery in the marine industry is under way.

“We all feel that the economy is coming back,” Turner says. “Designers are starting to get busy again. The refits are coming back. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re getting the real estate at the right time and that we’re in the beginning of a rebound that ideally positions us for growth.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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