The Next Big Thing

Could Bridgeport, Connecticut, become just as much of a boating destination as, say, Newport, Rhode Island?
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 Bridgeport, Connecticut’s waterfront features a new marina with 200 slips for yachts as long as 300 feet.

 Bridgeport, Connecticut’s waterfront features a new marina with 200 slips for yachts as long as 300 feet.

What “flyover country” is to the United States, the Connecticut coastline has long been to Northeast boaters. Stuck between bustling New York Harbor and Rhode Island’s marine mecca of Newport, the Nutmeg State is a place that a lot of boaters simply cruise past on their way to somewhere else. Nice view. Pretty waterfront homes. Ho hum.

Developer Robert Christoph Jr. is working to change that, and to make Bridgeport, Connecticut, the next great boating destination in the region. The city is about 60 miles from Manhattan and about 120 miles from Newport, making it a natural waypoint for many boaters in terms of distance. It’s also a natural waypoint in terms of marine topography: The approach depth at mean low water is 12 feet, and there are no bridges between Bridgeport Harbor and the Long Island Sound.

Since the early 1980s, developers with fanciful ideas have been saying they want to redevelop the area known as Steel Point, a peninsula just south of Bridgeport’s downtown. Plans have come and gone, as have the developers themselves, and then the dilapidated structures that were there finally went away too. Christoph, who once owned the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale along with several others, says he started working on taking over the Bridgeport site nearly two decades ago.

“I’ve been working on this project for approximately 19 years,” he says. “The City of Bridgeport was looking for somebody to develop 55 acres on the waterfront. There were several yacht clubs, an oyster company, a steel plant—they were being relocated. Nothing was wrong, but the city was going through a process of condemnation.”

His vision at the location is for a boater’s recreational mecca, including waterfront dining, shopping, concerts and marine services. A marina with 200 slips for yachts as long as 300 feet is now completed, and there’s a 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops, a Starbucks, a Chipotle and a T-Mobile store. Christoph’s company, Bridgeport Landing Development, also built a 44,000-square-foot waterfront building that houses the dockmaster, office space and the Boca Oyster Bar restaurant.

About a thousand boaters tried out the new marina slips and the restaurant last summer, according to Christoph. “They enjoyed Bridgeport Harbor in a way they haven’t in a hundred years,” he says of the marina’s first clients. “A lot of people don’t know it exists, so we’ll be hosting boat shows in May and September. We’ll have a yacht and charter show in May. We think it’s important to have the show in the spring to show people what’s available, and then in September there will be another boat show.”

 In addition to restaurants, a music venue, fishing tournaments, boat shows, apartments and a resort and casino are in the works for Bridgeport’s waterfront.

 In addition to restaurants, a music venue, fishing tournaments, boat shows, apartments and a resort and casino are in the works for Bridgeport’s waterfront.

Also part of the growing development is the old Derecktor Shipyard site, which is across Bridgeport Harbor from the marina. The yard is now called Bridgeport Boatworks, and it has 75- and 200-ton Travelifts, repair services, a paint shop, and outside as well as heated inside winter storage. The next phase of development is expected to include waterfront apartments and, if lawmakers agree, a resort and casino. The process of getting the gaming permit will take some time and quite a lot of lobbying; a new casino would compete with the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos, which are farther from the population mecca of New York City than the new Bridgeport casino would be. “We are partnered up with MGM Resorts International to bring a hotel and entertainment facility to Connecticut,” Christoph says. “We’re working on that with legislation, for a hotel-casino.”

For this summer, though, boaters will be able to get their first look at the completed marina and restaurant. Seasonal slips are available, with security cameras, access card-controlled gangways, pedestal-mounted water and power (30-, 50- and 100-amp), in-slip pump-out, complimentary Wi-Fi, and a fuel dock with diesel and gasoline. The marina also has air-conditioned bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

Those types of amenities are important, Christoph says, based on his own experience owning a San Juan 48 powerboat and a J/121 sailboat. He has cruised to marinas in the Northeast as well as on the Great Lakes, and, like most boaters, wants to be comfortable when he is tied up at the dock.

“The majority of the marinas in the Northeast are older facilities that modern boats have outgrown, either in beam or in power,” Christoph says. “A 50-foot boat can take up to 100 amps. Some of these Ferrettis and the new Hatterases, there’s just so much electronic gear on them, it pulls. It trips the breakers all the time. We have three-phase and power for the megayachts down to 30-amp boats. Depends on the slip. We built it for the boats of today and of the future.”

Individual cruisers are of course welcome, Christoph says, adding that “we also have manufacturers and rendezvous coming, fishing tournaments, sailing regattas—that is all part of the future.”

And when boaters come to the city, he says, they can enjoy music. The old Ballpark at Harbor Yard, where the Bridgeport Bluefish used to round the bases, is becoming a LiveNation amphitheater open from spring through fall—coinciding with the region’s prime boating months. Much of the original ballpark seating will remain, with a stage going up where center field used to be, and new seating added at stage level. The arena will hold 5,500 people for concerts and other performances.

Boaters won’t be able to anchor in the harbor on concert days the way they do for events such as the Newport Jazz Festival (too much ferry traffic would make doing so a hazard in Bridgeport), but the location of the new amphitheater should be a boon for marina patrons. “It’s about 200 yards from the water,” Christoph says. “You could dock at the marina and listen, or dock here, have dinner here at Boca Oyster Bar and go to a show. We’re looking to create a full-service destination.”

As for anyone who has lingering doubts about Bridgeport as a destination because of its history, which included a fair share of blight and crime, Christoph says the time he has spent in the city recently erases all concerns. While the city’s past may have been an obstacle to redevelopment, he says, its present is increasingly modern. For Bridgeport, as with other cities in Connecticut, including Stamford, redevelopment is taking place at a fast clip.

The old Derecktor Shipyard is now Bridgeport Boatworks and features 75- and 200-ton Travelifts, repair services, a paint shop and heated inside winter storage.

The old Derecktor Shipyard is now Bridgeport Boatworks and features 75- and 200-ton Travelifts, repair services, a paint shop and heated inside winter storage.

“From our site, I walk to lunch every day at Chipotle or I go downtown to try different restaurants, or I’ll walk to the train station and go to New York City or Stamford,” Christoph says. “It’s about a seven- to ten-minute walk from the waterfront to the train station. There are no problems. People are friendly. There have been no issues with any of my tenants. I think the perceptions are still there, but in reality, a lot of things have changed in Bridgeport. Stamford went through its building boom, and I think the next city to go through that building boom is Bridgeport.”

And local officials, after years of waiting for the right developer to come along, couldn’t agree more.

“When you have developers like Bridgeport Landing Development, it becomes contagious and other developers can’t help but recognize Bridgeport’s great features,” Tom Gill, Bridgeport’s economic development director, said recently. “When people go by on I-95, what they are seeing is our amphitheater, marina and downtown housing developments. I can foresee visitors having a great time going from their docked boat to this restaurant and to a water-taxi to a show.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.