Friday, May 29, 2009

The Future of Gloucester's Fishing Industry - Part I

There will always be fishing in Gloucester. There will always be men to go fishing. That is our heritage and has been for close to 400 years. It is not, however, Gloucester’s future.

If you were an adult in the late 1940s or 1950s, you witnessed the big show! Sixty years ago, Gloucester’s fishing industry was at its peak. We were the recognized world leader in production of volume fish products. Since the mid-1950s, our dominance in the industry has steadily declined.

Gorton Pew's F/V Mother Ann Being Towed
After Launching in Essex, 1947

To understand this rise and fall of our once anchor industry, we must review a few basics. At the end of the great depression in the early ‘40s, our fleet of offshore vessels had completed a transition from dory fishing to a motorized dragging method of fishing. Gloucester’s fleet was on the threshold of adopting a vastly different, more efficient, method of catching fish. A few newer draggers were being built just before WW II. A new modern fish pier was created on Five Pound Island, complete with processing stalls and freezer coming on line in 1938. Clarence Birdseye introduced quick freezing and the Portuguese fishermen were occasionally catching a new, strange redfish in their trawls and nets. All these factors came together in the early 1940s. Pearl Harbor and WW II brought immense increased demand for our newly discovered redfish. This required the modern day quick-freezing method of processing that completed the more salt.

What we didn’t know at the time, was the epic era we were about to enter and the historic impact our fishing products would have on this country and the European war torn world economies.

For the decade between 1945 and 1955, Gloucester and our citizens enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. This is the era I grew up in and it really was a big show. Our city was totally involved. If the family’s breadwinner wasn’t a fisherman or a wharf worker, it was a rarity. It seemed our entire population was intimately involved in supporting our anchor industry. It was an exciting era; it was Gloucester’s way of life. In those days, I thought Gloucester’s business, fishing, would go on forever!

Graduating from Gloucester High School in 1951, I immediately took a job on this busy waterfront. It was what many young men and women did in those days.

Joe Codinha's Ultra-Modern Redfish Processing Plant, off East Main Street, 1945

The F/V Benjamin C. highline crew, pictured on the vessel's whaleback, steaming home from the fishing banks in 1947.
Center: Highline Capt. Joe Ciarametaro, surrounded by his crew

Maiden Trip F/V Felicia, Leaving Gloucester under command of Capt. Salvatore Nicastro

Now some 50 plus years later, our 200 big boat offshore fleet of the 1950s is reduced to a couple dozen inshore boats, several hailing from Maine ports because they are legally prohibited from landing dragger lobsters in Maine. These lobsters are a vital by-catch, extra cash to the crew, the main incentive for the Maine draggers to land their fish and their lobsters in Gloucester. Therefore, the reality is, the Gloucester inshore fleet includes these additional visiting Maine boats.

Today, our main processing fresh fish firms are the display auction, Ocean Crest Seafood and maybe one or two other fresh fish handlers. The Gloucester Seafood Display Auction handled 20,600 pounds of fish yesterday, a sharp contrast to a routine one million pound day in 1950. In the year 1946, the Master Mariner's yearbook listed 19 fish handling firms on Gloucester's waterfront, and we were only just beginning to ramp up to our phenomenal postwar fish production.

What is Gloucester’s fishing future? If you buy into the Harvard PHD trained, self-declared industry experts, our fishing industry is on the verge of a major comeback. They say our only concern should be “will we be ready”, the inference being, will Gloucester be prepared to handle the anticipated deluge of fish to be delivered in the near future!

Preposterous!!! The Carmine Gorgas, David Rubens and Peter Bearses of our community, along with other well-meaning activists, are, in my mind, wrong on their prognosis of the so-called comeback of our once world leadership in the fishing industry. I intend to prove my case in succeeding blogs.

Next Week , Part II: CHANGE

Friday, May 22, 2009

How Gloucester's Legacy Can Aid Our Future

The City of Gloucester has a story to tell and we’ve been writing it since 1623. It’s a beautiful human story of a hard working, seafaring community surrounded by water. Our island is no more. Gloucester’s story is THE human experience. It is our heritage, a story like no other. It is our history that could insure our future economic well being. It unfolds in front of Leonard Crask’s famous statue “The Man at the Wheel.”

Many years ago, we attended a surround sound movie experience at Disneyworld in Florida. As we stood watching what was advertised as “best” world attractions around the globe, the very first opening slide was our “Man at the Wheel” statue on the boulevard! This same world famous statue has been selected to be honored on newly minted quarters in 2010. Imagine the exposure Gloucester will gain by this single “no cost to us” honor bestowed by the federal U.S. Mint. This simple gesture could raise the interest of the world traveling community and bring untold numbers to our shores.

Gloucester has all the ingredients to attract thousands of visitors to our unique “fishing town”. People the world over want to visit and witness a fishing type, whale watching, seafaring experience. This is our legacy to the world, and it should be our community mission to tell it. It is this 400-year old heritage that will bail out Gloucester financially!

Partial Portuguese Fleet, 1947

In my youth Gloucester was “the” leading commercial fishing port of the world. Like chocolate is to Hershey, Pennsylvania, fish was to Gloucester, Massachusetts. This place was totally involved in catching, processing and marketing fish. We were the best at what we did, supplying a high protein content food to our domestic market as well as the armed forces throughout WW II. Under the Marshall Plan, after the war, our fishing industry fed the recovering European war torn continent with our ocean harvest! This story is an often forgotten chapter in Gloucester’s history. It should be retold to our visitors.

On all of our touring vacations, most recently to Holland, every experience was geared to that area’s heritage. In every case, these host destinations offered first-rate hospitality to their visitors. Tourism is an industry; do not underestimate Gloucester’s potential as a visitor destination. People are living longer, and it is these older, retired vacationers that desire, crave, and even thirst for a traveling and learning experience. They are willing to pay big bucks for it. In this informational age of the internet and population mobility, we in Gloucester must capitalize on the vast potential of this sightseeing tourism industry. It is our “ace in the hole”.

In the ‘40s, Gloucester’s summer population swelled by the thousands – artists, historians, vacationers – all sought out our natural beauty. These people appreciated and realized what Cape Ann offered. They stayed in our big hotels – the Moorland, Thorwald, Hawthorne Inn and several others. They lived with us for weeks, often the entire summer season! That has changed over the decades. The modern day vacationer is sophisticated, mobile, internet informed, and demands more. They seek exceptional entertainment because they have experienced it elsewhere.

We here on Cape Ann are truly different and it behooves us as a community to promote ourselves. We must not hide our identity, but advertise our heritage. We are the “other cape” with a story to tell. To do that, we must put on a united front. Gorton’s, our principal fish company, could take a leading role. We must offer quality attractions, and enhanced, authentic waterfront exhibits. We could consider renaming some of our streets and waterfront ways after famous fish species, vessels, industry trade marks and the like.

To reiterate, we must as a community open up and aggressively go after this seasonal visitor income potential. We must offer class type attractions to the tourists if we want them to stay and contribute to our economy. It could be the answer for our economic resurgence. We must change and invite people in; we do not have the luxury of continuing a lethargic mode in terms of waiting for a fishing industry to regenerate itself. We must get off the dime and reinvent ourselves!

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Response to Michael David Rubin's "My View" Column

Today’s blog “How Gloucester’s Legacy Can Aid Our Future”, has been postponed until next week in favor of a developing story that has taken precedent.....stay tuned.....Ron Gilson

On Monday, May 11, my Gloucester Daily Times was read early a.m. as usual. I was drawn immediately to the “My View” piece by Michael David Rubin. In my opinion, Mr. Rubin was way off base with his views of a waterfront on the verge of a comeback!

Normally, the writing of my weekly blogspot begins on Monday, but Rubin’s viewpoint needed to be addressed immediately. He points out that on May 19 the Gloucester City Council will be considering the latest version of the Harbor Plan. As I worked on my response to the “My View” column and because of the subject’s importance and timeliness, I felt it required an urgent response and thus became my weekly blog.

Out of courtesy to the Times I held off publishing this blog until my letter to the editor appeared in the paper. So......I reprint my reply to Mr. Rubin today, Saturday, May 16, 6 p.m., as it was printed in the Times this morning. The fishing history should be considered by the city council when deliberating on our current version of the harbor plan.

My reply in the Times to Mr. Rubin is as follows:

This is an open message to Michael David Rubin and his "My View" (the Times, May 11). I pass this along from a concerned citizen, for what I have to say is true and is appalling.

Mr. Rubin, whatever disagreement you have with Mayor Kirk and her Community Development Director is between the parties; I will not go there. I also will not comment on Mayor Kirk’s Harbor Initiative. I’ve done enough commenting on well meaning civic minded harbor planning committees, dating back to the mid 1960s when I served on Mayor Donald Lowe’s Harbor Planning Committee.

About seven of us met for 2 years on a bi-weekly basis, and spent $10,000 of the city’s money on a professional feasibility study by consultants Metcalf & Eddy. The end result.....nothing. Out of curiosity, I recently attempted to obtain a copy of “our” study to no avail; it has vanished. I do know that by the time it was published, two years had passed, administrations had changed, interest had waned, and apparently our Harbor Study Report went unrecognized, possibly placed into the round file.

In your “My View” piece, I take issue with your opinion that our harbor and its once primary revenue source, commercial fishing, may still return, not only stronger, but as a vital resource. The persistent theme of turning Gloucester into a tourist oriented economy repeats the old threat – destructive residential development of our waterfront. These same scare tactics were around 40 years ago when our Harbor Study Committee met.

Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, the only family member surviving the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in WW II, on the dedication of the Anne Frank House in 1967, said this, “to build a future you have to know the past.”

In 1949, when Gloucester’s 200 boats, 2,000 fishermen, and 2,500 wharf workers were landing and processing millions of pounds of edible fish daily, routinely breaking annual records of 300- 500 million pounds of redfish and whiting, you, Mr. Rubin, were six years old!

While everyone hopes for a fish comeback, I ask you, define “come back”. Gloucester’s peak fish production was in 1949, ’50, ’51. It has gone downhill steadily since. At the height of our highest fish production, when every pound of fish had to be filleted, packed and frozen, that entire task was accomplished on no more than 60% of the then available wharfage. At least 40% of our waterfront wharfage real estate was unused!

Mr. Rubin, the above is all history, but it’s where Gloucester was in the late ‘40s, when fishing was Gloucester’s primary revenue source. To infer that our waterfront will ever approach even 25% of that production is preposterous. To continue to hold out hope for any fishing fleet revival, warranting the reserving of additional wharfage and/or waterfront frontage, is ridiculous, plain and simple. It’s more, it’s downright fraudulent! I can give you many reasons for the current dire state of Gloucester’s commercial fishing industry.

Along the periphery of our harbor from the Fort to East Gloucester, there are 79 strictly waterfront properties within the D.P.A. (Designated Port Area). Official city records indicate these properties pay a total of $741,000 in real estate taxes. Our entire real estate tax revenues are 56.7 million dollars. Gloucester’s budget is 81 million, as recently submitted. Our waterfront is paying approximately 1-1/2% of our actual total tax revenue! In other words, approximately 98% of Gloucester’s real estate taxpayers are subsidizing your alleged “primary revenue source”, Gloucester harbor waterfront businesses! And you, my concerned citizen, continue to advocate for industrial-only expansion while prime water frontage lies fallow, in some cases over 40 years!

Mr. Rubin, the people of Gloucester deserve an income-producing Gloucester waterfront. Our children and grandchildren deserve better. Our Gloucester waterfront must step up to the plate and pay its fair share. Our city councilors must address the larger need of our entire real estate taxpayer population and our city government must accept the REALITY that our once dominate fishing industry, as we knew it, has changed forever.

Ron Gilson, Gloucester

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How Travelers Are Picking our Pockets

Man At the Wheel

Most everyone residing in Gloucester will agree that we live in a beautiful place. I’ve traveled my share in my lifetime, and visited some wonderful vacation spots, but there’s no place like Gloucester. Waikiki Beach is enchanting and Alaska is certainly picturesque, but Good Harbor Beach at dawn or the Back Shore in the throws of a northeaster beats all! Those scenes and so many more speak to the very heart of what Gloucester is all about. For those of us who live in this beautiful corner of the world we are so fortunate.

Good Harbor Beach at Dawn by Joey C.

In an earlier piece, I wrote about the big summer hotels that once catered to our seasonal tourists. People in the ‘30s and ‘40s visited and stayed weeks, even months, soaking up Gloucester’s attractions. Artists painted busy wharf scenes; the Delphine and Hawthorne Inn cocktail lounges attracted big time talent Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. For the summer visitors, there was wharf activity in the morning, beaches in the afternoon and night club action from Long Beach to East Gloucester to Magnolia’s Oceanside Hotel in the evening.

In those years our fishing fleet was constantly changing, landing more and more fish. Every resident seeking employment could find work on the wharfs or on the vessels. Our southern fleet of 15 – 20 boats, hailing from Virginia ports, boosted our fish landings here. Their families followed as the boats moved north, adding again to our summer population – all these seasonal residents provided increased local revenue. Gloucester, even during the Great Depression seemed to have it together. We were a total community, interrupted by an annual surge of seasonal visitors who easily fit into the landscape of a busy fishing town.

After the Storm by SmugMug

I’m reminded of the outdoor summer art classes conducted by artist Emile Gruppe. He would have as many as 15 – 20 students in front of the Frank E. Davis Fish Wharf (now the Gloucester House Restaurant) and other waterfront locations, painting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, weather permitting. Gruppe’s students came early in June and some stayed for weeks, taking advantage of his teaching.

Today we have none of that summer activity. All our hotels are gone. Seasonal vacationers are mostly day trippers. Visitors arrive by occasional tour buses that stop at the Fisherman’s Statue, or cruise the Back Shore to the Elks function room for a Sunday wedding reception. Our waterfront is barely recognizable. We’re down to a few day boats and the once visible busy fish landing activity is no more. Whale watching is now our new waterfront industrial thing. The artists complain of fewer subjects to paint or paintings being sold.

Our locals have adjusted to the waterfront downturn having moved on long ago, either to our industrial parks, or away completely. Shipbuilding is non-existent for any remaining local fishermen. Waterfront investment dollars associated with fishing are unheard of.

All of the above is the current status of our once summer visitor industry’s main attraction. Today’s tourists are picking and choosing. They are day trippers, arriving by car, toting picnic baskets and bringing their own cold drinks. Our high school athletic grounds provide parking for recreational trailers and Stage Fort Park is filled with families from Boston suburbs, arriving before dawn staking out cookout areas in front of Cressy Beach and parking their cars along the boulevard by the tennis courts, free of charge.

Gloucester is having its pockets picked by day trippers and people passing through. We, in some cases, are giving our Gloucester away! We are not fully capitalizing on our beautiful amenities. We are not making a concerted effort to attract and keep our visitors in Gloucester, once they come over the bridge. As I write this, the future of an official Visitors’ Center is in question.

In 1994, after our restaurant closed, I took a job as the maitre d' at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Inn in Rockport. The inn provided lodging often to week-long visitors, some even longer. Each morning I overheard dining room guests conversations about their activities planned for the day. What was discussed were day trips to Newburyport for shopping; the Peabody malls; Essex antiquing; the Salem Peabody Museum; and possibly a Rockport train to Boston and the Freedom Trail. I cannot recall Gloucester mentioned as a daytime destination!

Main Street Hotel, originally Savoy Hotel

What are we doing wrong? I’ve asked myself that a million times. Gloucester has all the natural beautiful seaside attractions. We have many of the basics; however, our signature attraction, fishing, is no more. The hanging nets, sails drying, busy vessel harbor traffic and volume fish handling are gone. We must attempt to recreate, promote and provide the short term visitor with a reason for wanting to visit our main attraction, our harbor. We should have a waterfront harbor hotel. The downtown Main Street Savoy Hotel of the ‘50s was inadequate in its day; however, it did provide in town year-round lodging. After 50 years, we should build a downtown harbor front hotel and recreational complex. This has to be the keystone of our harbor economic revitalization plan. Incoming visitors will stay extra days in a friendly downtown hotel facility, shop on our Main Street, and visit the Maritime Heritage Center. We must offer more than undeveloped grass vistas, wrongly placed retail businesses, and only stuffy high end visitor attractions.

The centrally located Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, at Harbor Loop, in conjunction with a harbor front hotel, could become the crown jewel in our new waterfront tourist center. This attraction can be and should be much more, possibly partnering with the nearby former Empire Fish Company, now owned by Peter Mullen & Co. Perhaps refurbishing the Empire’s abandoned fish cutting room and whiting processing area as a static display, a walk through picture display enhanced by a 1940s/50s production exhibit.

One of the most interesting pictorial displays of bygone years was exhibited at a St. Peter’s Fiesta, a showing of memorable past fiestas. That exhibit received rave reviews as a highlight of the Fiesta. We should consider recreating this exhibit along with literally thousands of bygone era pictures of the fishing industry, and make a comprehensive exhibit, “open to the public”, possibly in the old Empire Clothing store on Main Street.

In all our travels through the years, our destinations were always entertaining and interesting. To us, as visitors, there were always events to attend, museums to visit, and public displays or exhibits to entertain us. Gloucester must promote its heritage. Upon arriving, a visitor will have a reason for staying, rent a hotel room, shop on our Main Street, and dine in our excellent restaurants. We only have to keep them entertained! We must provide user friendly exhibits in our museums and along our waterfront. Our Maritime Heritage Center should be a prime player.

I’m told tour buses transport annually 80,000 Nova Scotia school students to the remote Lunenburg’s Fishermen’s Museum of the Atlantic. Gloucester has all the ingredients; we only need to find a way to create more appeal by enhancing our harbor and its existing attractions. We have a product to sell. Let's do it!

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: In keeping with selling Gloucester - congratulations to Linn Parisi and her talented board of creative directors for their "Discover Gloucester" brochure. Thursday night this new promotional effort was premiered at The Gloucester House . A dream of Linn's for over a year, this professionally created promotional brochure is an "in your hand" excellent advertising piece prepared for visitors to Gloucester. Their efforts deserve recognition! Again, we have a product to sell. We're doing it!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Gloucester Development Projects and Impact Upon Downtown Business

It has been my experience over the years that many Gloucesterites often take the view that the glass is half empty, rather than half full. We seem to doubt the success of any proposal, especially if it involves change. It is almost automatic to anticipate a negative outcome, even before anything is discussed.

For example, a few years ago the state proposed changing the intersection lights and flow of vehicular traffic on Eastern Avenue, Bass Avenue, and Route 128 extension. Before it was completed, critics said it wouldn’t work! One city councilor voiced a negative review as well as several East Gloucester citizens in letters to the editor. Then there was the famous “Fight the Light” proposal in conjunction with the development of Gloucester Crossing shopping mall. How about the harangue over the suicide fence on the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge? All these problems have run their course and been resolved, one way or another; however, not before numerous letters to the editors, bumper stickers, petitions, legal actions, and public hearings were conducted. In the end, the Eastern Avenue/128 intersection has never worked better during my lifetime. I’ve lived with that traffic situation in my old neighborhood since the 50s. The 128 bridge suicide fence has faded into the woodwork over the years and now will be permanently addressed with the long awaited rebuilding of the bridge. Whether it is changing Main Street traffic flow, a hotel proposal at the Fort, or replacing the gas main on Atlantic Road during the summer months, we, as citizens, never seem to envision a successful outcome. We only see the trees and not the forest beyond.

Gloucester Crossing (artist’s rendering)

I recently had a discussion with a downtown merchant who was against the Gloucester Crossing project, citing fear that it would negatively impact her downtown retail business community.

I believe just the opposite. If anything, the coming of a modern, competitive food store, Market Basket, to a Gloucester central location would serve to keep residents on Cape Ann. A Marshall’s department store would further reduce the so-called need for shoppers to leave town. Then the downtown merchants could benefit by these stay-at-home shoppers. They might just rediscover Main Street for the unique, quality merchandise that our Main Street merchants offer. A Danvers DeMoulas store employee told me that 5300 Gloucester customer checking accounts have been approved by the Market Basket. No longer will Gloucester food customers be held up with a gun in their backs, forced to accept exorbitant “island” food pricing. We won’t need to go over the bridge, at least for groceries!

Main Street, Gloucester

Fifty years ago, Gloucester consumers depended upon Main Street for everything. People traded only in Gloucester. It has been said that in those days the retailers made money by accident. A bank president once told me that there were two main commercial banks in Gloucester and their customers often moved from one to the other. The banks’ goal was to maintain their customer share of the existing business. All that changed in the 1950s when Gloucester consumers discovered the North Shore open air shopping mall and later the Liberty Tree mall. Gloucester merchants and their established merchandising methods were introduced to off-island competition.

Over these 60 years, malls, superhighways, private and public transportation, and shopper mobility, have changed Gloucester’s retail merchandising landscape. To do business in the 21st century, retailers must continue to offer quality products, service, and one-of-a-kind innovative merchandising. It is for this very reason I feel Main Street will continue to attract retail customers because of their unique product offerings, excellent quality restaurants, art galleries, and antique shops. I told the apprehensive store keeper that Main Street stores have an opportunity to distance themselves from the ordinary, thereby attracting the discerning, alternative seeking, and sophisticated shoppers to their stores for their special merchandise.

All of the above thinking is not just something I’ve dreamed about, it’s my philosophy and what I have done. In March of 1981, at the height of a recession, unemployment was at 9% and business money was selling at the Gloucester National Bank at 22%. At that time, we purchased a rundown property at 284 Main Street. Seven months later my family opened the Union Hill Coffee House on September 17, 1981. Prior to our grand opening, while walking down Union Hill, I met Gorton’s then president, Ross Clouston. During a brief conversation, while he was observing our Union Hill sign being installed on our façade, he asked if I had a “business plan”. Knowing he was a man of few words, I stopped, looked him in the eye, and said, “Mr. Clouston, we intend to build a better mousetrap”. Looking back on that succinct exchange, I chuckle over my naiveté. This, at a time when Gloucester had more than its share of breakfast places. They were as prevalent as sub shops, beauty salons, and pizza parlors!

Union Hill Coffee House 1981

We continued in business for 13 years, winning awards in Boston Magazine, North Shore Weekly, and receiving numerous other recognitions. We established an excellent reputation, attracting local customers and out-of-towners during all seasons, selling innovative products, providing excellent service, and unusual marketing. This was accomplished with street parking only. Union Hill Coffee House was the busiest restaurant in town; it was judged by others to be the best. We even sponsored our own 14-piece Union Hill Banjo Band that played routinely on patriotic holidays and other special occasions at the restaurant. We packed them in!

Therefore, I know Gloucester Crossing will probably affect some retailers; however, they are not marketing the same merchandise offered on our unique, picturesque developing Main Street. Our retailers on Main Street have a one-of-a-kind opportunity to create a new shopping experience, leaving behind ordinary merchandising found in the chain stores for the masses. After all, Main Street proprietors must be different to survive and prosper.

I believe, if the local merchants of today offer quality products and services not found “everywhere”, packaged with a customer friendly approach, our Main Street retailers will have a successful business plan, that is, “a better mousetrap".

This week marked the passing of Mr. John Chernis. He was a prominent member of our Union Hill Banjo Band back in the 1980s. John was a respected professional musician and the kindest, most soft spoken, loving man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. John Chernis was a friend to all. Ron Gilson
Union Hill Banjo Band 1987 (John Chernis front left)

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