City officials sounded off Thursday, praising the vibrant new plan for developing the State Pier. Lauded were the “many actions that Governor Baker, the legislative delegation, and MassDevelopment have taken to get us to today’s milestone announcement,” as New Bedford Economic Development Council President Anthony Sapienza wrote in a press release.
But behind the scenes, state legislators have been largely critical, not just of the proposal, but of the eight-month selection process that they described as lacking in transparency and circumventing their authority in managing the use of the state-owned property.
“It seems that everyone involved on the inside decided that the public should be kept on the outside,” said Rep. Bill Straus (10th Bristol), who, along with three other members of New Bedford’s state legislature, filed a sweeping public records request Tuesday aimed at MassDevelopment and its communications with the mayor, his chief of staff, the partners selected to develop the pier and even the governor. He continued: “This was done entirely in the shadows.”
In an interview Thursday, Mayor Jon Mitchell shifted blame back to the state legislature. Under their watch, he said, they “have allowed that facility to languish for at least three decades.”
Selected Thursday by MassDevelopment, a quasi-public entity with a board appointed by the governor, the proposal is a hopeful and attractive development for what city officials describe as a central but “underutilized” piece of the waterfront. Early sketches show new restaurants and seafood facilities sprouting from what is currently a sprawling, cracked and usually vacant parking lot at the foot of New Bedford’s historic downtown.
“The pier was grossly mismanaged for many years, and it has taken a lot of effort to get it to this point in the development process,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, who in a press release outlined key legislation he led to advance the economic development.
But a development plan started in at least 2008 as a united front to reinvigorate the pier has turned into a bitter turf war over the potential uses of the waterfront — and which politicians wield the power to determine the kinds of businesses that can operate there.
There are three types of waterfront properties along the Port of New Bedford: those owned by the state, the city and private businesses. The State Pier is owned by the state, and as such Straus and three other state legislators — Tony Cabral (13th), Chris Hendricks (11th), and Paul Schmid (8th) — say they have authority, or should at least have input, over the infrastructure and its developments.
They expected to be involved when MassDevelopment, which leases the pier from the state, began seeking proposals from private business conglomerates to develop the facility. That was in April. Since then, the state legislators say MassDevelopment has shut them out of the selection process — all the while taking guidance from Mitchell’s office.
Though the city does not have direct authority over the state-owned pier, Mitchell did not shrink from the claim that he was involved in “closed-door meetings” with MassDevelopment.
“I absolutely was involved in those discussions,” Mitchell said, explaining that his role was only “advisory” to MassDevelopment. “We have not sat back and hoped things would happen,” he continued. “We have tried to advance this strategically.”
MassDevelopment declined to comment on Thursday, instead directing questions to their press release.
The State Pier is the most recent theater in what city officials describe as an almost eternal tug of war over the use of the port: mixed-use or industrial. It is a valuable piece of underdeveloped real estate with a center location in the nation’s top earning commercial fishing port. And with the guidance of Mitchell, MassDevelopment has plans to introduce non-industrial business, like restaurants and seafood displays. It aligns with the mayor’s vision of what he describes as a more tourist-friendly parcel of the port at the foot of Union Street.
Though the proposal accepted by MassDevelopment indicates it would maintain the industrial businesses that operate on the State Pier — an international shipping company, a cold storage facility, and a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard —Straus isn’t convinced.
MassDevelopment received three proposals in response to their April request. The one accepted included prominent names in the New Bedford business community: Steve Silverstein, who owns and operates several city restaurants, including Cisco Brewers and the Black Whale; Ed Washburn, the former director of the New Bedford Port Authority and now-managing director of Coast Line Transfers; and Cassie Canastra, director of operations at BASE.
But so did the rejected proposal submitted by another group of potential developers, which included: Andrew Saunders and his partners, who are currently developing the Foss Marine Terminal just south of the State Pier; David Wechsler, president of Maritime International, which currently operates on the State Pier; and James Barker, a member of the family that owns the Seastreak Ferry, which also operates on the State Pier.
“There doesn’t seem to be any commitment to these key, working waterfront activities that are a signature part of the port of New Bedford,” Straus said. “We are hoping that full, public disclosure will help the next administration determine whether such an agreement is in the public interest.”
But Mitchell disagreed that there was no public input, citing the city’s “Waterfront Framework Plan,” a 92-page planning document that he says was put together with input from a wide variety of the waterfront’s stakeholders.
“What we heard, including from folks in the fishing industry, is that the State Pier is not utilized well, it is not managed well, and it is right in the middle of the central waterfront,” Mitchell said. “It should be a lot more than it is.”
Editor’s note: This story was modified on Dec. 23, 2022, to add comment from Sen. MarkMontigny.
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