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Sailing vessels and yachts cruising from Camden to Castine now have good reason to take a left turn at Belfast.
The city's waterfront, once an embarrassment with chicken waste floating in the harbor and derelict buildings covered with graffiti, has undergone a dramatic transformation. It is now being marketed by the city as a “hidden gem for boaters” ranging Penobscot Bay, long considered one of the top cruising grounds in the world. Docks have been added, wharves upgraded and a new $1.5 million Belfast Harbor Walk has been built extending more than half a mile along the waterfront, linking parks, a shopping district and several restaurants. The city's historic downtown is just a short walk away.
“We're driving on all cylinders,” says Dorothy Havey, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, whose office offers a view of the city's public landing. “We've got a great harbor now and Front Street Shipyard has played a big role in that. They bring in activity, they bring in crews, they're getting a lot of attention and it's not just from along the East Coast. They're bringing in boats from around the world.”
The centerpiece of Belfast's waterfront transformation is Front Street Shipyard, a $13 million investment made by a partnership that includes four well-known Maine boatbuilders. In just three years, Front Street Shipyard has revitalized Belfast's working waterfront, tearing down derelict buildings and adding new state-of-the-art facilities for manufacturing boats both large and small. It's also purchased 165-ton and 485-ton travel lifts that can hoist vessels of “super yacht” size out of the water and transport them to a climate-controlled building for servicing or a refitting overhaul.
The shipyard's early successes — it now employs 110 workers and recently expanded into a leased facility in Bucksport to build a new line of 30-foot multihull boats for Trefoil Marine — earned for it the 2013 Boatyard of the Year award by the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association.
“Surprised? I'm stunned,” says Taylor Allen, owner of Rockport Marine Inc. and one of six principal partners in Front Street Shipyard. “I think it's really gone far beyond what I thought possible.”
“If you had seen it then [prior to the July 2011 opening], you'd think we all needed therapy,” adds Steve White, owner of Brooklin Boat Yard, who had scouted the run down property with Allen when it came back on the market in 2010 after several failed condominium redevelopment efforts. Both owners had been turning away business due to the physical constraints of their boat yards and saw potential in the flat six-acre property, notwithstanding the ramshackle buildings left behind after the 2001 closing of the Stinson sardine factory.
They found ready partners in JB Turner, former president of the Lyman-Morse Shipyard in Thomaston, who had more than 24 years' experience as a manager of yacht services and composite boatbuilding projects for major yards along the East Coast, and Kenneth Priest II, CEO of Kenway Corp., a custom composite manufacturing company in Augusta with a marine division that generates up to 40% of its overall business.
It's about as close to being a “dream team” of boat builders as you could find in Maine, or anywhere else. Two other investors, Lucia Michaud and Jack Rettig, complete the partnership.
“We have similar philosophies on how to treat our employees and customers,” says Allen. “One of the big drivers for me is that I thought it would be fun.” To which White adds, “Taylor and I have worked on projects together a lot over the years. We knew we were working from a position of strength [given the partners' extensive boatbuilding experience], but we also knew we weren't going to run this shipyard: JB would be the manager. Bringing in someone with the experience of JB was a positive.”
Noting that he typically only spends two or three hours a week at Front Street, with Allen and Priest likewise spending most of their time running their own shops, White makes clear who's running the show in Belfast: “Boatyards really have to have a king. Taylor and I and JB and Ken know that. We're all in agreement: JB is the king of Front Street Shipyard.”
Turner says Front Street Shipyard's dramatic growth since its 2011 opening, in many respects, fits the “build it and they will come” business model.
A first-year investment in the 165-ton travel lift, coupled with Belfast's deep water access, conveyed a strong message from the start that the partners were serious about servicing and storing large boats at their new shipyard. Those boats filled the marina's 46 slips and 400 feet of transient dockage; some stayed on for storage or refitting. Front Street built several new facilities, including one, known inauspiciously as Building 5, that stands five stories high and has a slab floor capable of handling 300-ton loads. That led to an important early job establishing the shipyard's credentials to work on large vessels, a complete overhaul of a 106-foot Burger motor yacht. And late last year they added a 485-ton hoist, large enough to handle a greater number of international super yachts.
It's now the largest yacht facility on the East Coast north of Newport, R.I., and one of the largest on the entire East Coast, he says.
More importantly, every building in the shipyard is bustling with workers building or refitting boats. There are also plans for a 22,000-square-foot structure, Building 6, that would be able to accommodate the 485-ton hoist and construct or refit vessels up to 150 feet long. “We'd love to have it built this year,” Turner says. “A lot of it is based on the job list and financing. It would give us the finest facility on the East Coast.”
Turner says there are four basic elements to Front Street Shipyard's business plan: Production and customized boat-building; refitting yachts; general dock-and-boatyard services; and special projects related to offshore wind and ocean energy.
With companies of their own to manage, White, Allen and Priest acknowledge their involvement in Front Street Shipyard is an unusual ownership-management situation, in part because there may be occasions when some, or all, of the companies will be competing for the same job. Rather than being a potential source of conflict, they agree with Turner that competition is what keeps everyone at the top of their game. Like him, they also see tremendous opportunities to collaborate.
A case in point is the 74-foot cruising ketch Dragonera, designed by White's father, Joel White, and launched at the Brooklin Boat Yard in 1994. It's undergoing a refitting at Front Street, largely because the owner needed a quicker turnaround on the work than was possible at Brooklin due to its own backlog of work.
“There's a confidence factor knowing that I'm also a partner at Front Street,” White says. “If we can keep it in Maine, that's going to benefit everyone. If they have a good experience, whether it's with me at Brooklin, Taylor at Rockport or JB at Front Street, they'll come back.”
The common denominator among the partners, says Priest, is that each of them has worked hard to create a “culture of quality” at their respective companies. “We know that from past experience [at Kenway], Maine's reputation for 'quality' is the key. We're always better than our competition. Our out-of-state customers tell us that all the time. We find down South, they are amazed not only at our quality but also the quantity of work we get done in a day.”
“We work together,” adds Turner, citing as examples Kenway's capabilities for making large composite parts and an instance when Rockport Marine built a schooner mast out of steel that he needed at Front Street. “They send business our way, I send business their way.”
By design, Turner says, Front Street has pursued an “all of the above” vertical integration strategy to tap diverse markets that help keep his workers busy and the shipyard's facilities full of boats in various stages of completion. Running a marina with slips for yachts up to 150 feet as well as for smaller boats is very much part of the plan.
“If you look at the boats tied up at the docks here, all of those people, if we do our job right, they'll come back,” he says.
That's equally true for the contract Front Street has to build 30-foot catamarans for Trefoil Marine, which prompted the shipyard's expansion into a 15,000 square foot building in Bucksport this spring. The first of the T30 boats, which can be marketed both as patrol boats and recreational vessels, is scheduled to be in the water by July 21. Front Street now employs seven workers at the Bucksport facility, Turner says, and that number could increase by another 10 to 15 workers to meet the anticipated demand for Trefoil's T30s.
“We should be able to build 25 a year, once we get rolling,” Turner says. “They're pretty simple to build.”
And if Trefoil Marine taps Front Street to build the 80-foot version of its patrol boat as well, he says, that would give impetus to erecting Building 6 and add another 40 to 50 jobs at the Belfast site — putting it pretty much at full capacity. “That 80-footer could be a huge market for us,” Turner says.
Thomas Kittredge, Belfast's economic development director, says besides creating jobs, there's been a tremendous ripple effect being felt throughout the city as a result of Front Street Shipyard's rapid growth and the number of yachts and large boats it's drawing into the harbor for refitting services or simply transient docking.
“They're already one of the 10 biggest employers in Belfast,” he says. “They buy a lot from Maine vendors. The crews and captains of these ships come in and spend a lot of money here. Our downtown is pretty much at full occupancy now. Some subsidiary waterfront businesses have come in, like DiMillo's Yacht Sales and a sail maker. They've taken a site that was a complete eyesore and transformed it into a beautiful shipyard facility. They've revitalized our working waterfront. And all of this is still scratching the surface.”
Others in Maine's marine industry have taken notice.
“I think there are very few places on the East Coast that have the capacity to do the work they've been doing,” says Christopher DiMillo, president and founder of DiMillo's Yacht Sales, which a year ago opened a brokerage office next to Front Street Shipyard in Belfast. “Those projects wouldn't have come to Maine if they hadn't put in the facility they have up there.”
DiMillo, whose family has owned a marina in Portland since 1980, says he started the yacht sales division in 1997 to fill a void in the higher-end brokerage market in Maine. For several years running, his brokerage has been largest dealer in the country for Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts, both made in Maine. He jumped at the opportunity to add Belfast to its sales locations in Portland, Freeport and Glen Cove, N.Y.
“We wanted closer access to the market Down East,” he says. “But the other reason is that I've known JB Turner for a long time. I knew when he started the project in Belfast I'd be interested in being up there as well. It's been a great success for us so far.”
DiMillo says there are spinoff benefits outside of Belfast as well, noting that large yachts making their way to Belfast for docking or servicing at Front Street Shipyard have been stopping at DiMillo's Marina in Portland en route, increasing its revenues from fuel sales and docking fees.
“These are big vessels,” he says. “They're buying thousands of gallons of fuel.”
Dan Miller, owner of Belmont Boatworks and a charter boat captain, acknowledges that Front Street's rapid growth may have contributed to a shakeup within the region's smaller boat yards. “When they came in they hired a lot of talent out of shops that were slow and not doing much business to keep their workers happy,” he says. “As they established themselves, they brought in boat owners from all over the world. Some of the remaining smaller businesses were then overwhelmed and absolutely flooded with work.”
Miller counts himself as one of the beneficiaries of the renewed interest in Belfast's waterfront and the increased business. “It's been fairly mutually beneficial,” he says. “I was their first customer when they opened the marina.”
Belfast City Planner Wayne Marshall points to the $1.9 million federal grant the city received this spring for the $3.8 million reconstruction of Front Street as an example of a long-planned project that gained favor with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, in part, because the shipyard had provided data that rebuilding the road would improve the transport of boats between two shipyard buildings, improving efficiency and reducing costs that will help it gain more work. In so many words, an investment that would strengthen even more the city's working waterfront.
It's that kind of public-private partnership, Marshall says, that has characterized Front Street Shipyard's transformation of Belfast's waterfront from Day 1. “Everything fell into place with lightning speed,” he says, largely because the city already had in place a contract rezoning agreement for the property which would allow deviations from zoning regulations, such as height restrictions, subject to approval by the City Council. The intent, he says, was to encourage developers to take on an otherwise blighted property. It took a decade, he says, but the city's foresight is now paying off.
“This is truly their investment,” he says. “As a city official it's great to hear them say how good it's been to work with us. From the city's perspective, it's been great to see business owners put their trust in the city staff that we would work through all the issues that would get a handshake agreement to become a formal agreement. I'm not sure many companies would have put as much trust in the system as these guys did.”