Port in peril crafts its own rebound - Soundings Online

Port in peril crafts its own rebound

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When the largest employer in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, decided to pull up stakes, this Canadian island port town of about 2,300 people with more than a 200-year history of fishing and shipbuilding stepped up to preserve its working waterfront heritage.

In October 2003, Clearwater Fine Foods, a large fish-harvesting seafood company and the town’s largest employer, announced it was relocating its vessels, according to the Lunenburg Waterfront Association. Clearwater owned 24 buildings, 14 acres and eight wharves on the community’s waterfront, which all went up for sale shortly after the announcement.

The town citizenry agreed that a real marine working waterfront was essential for the community and in 2005, after bringing together numerous outside supporters, convinced Nova Scotia’s government to purchase the entire Clearwater property for $5.5 million.

“The town support for a working waterfront was unanimous,” says Jim Eisenhauer, chair of the Lunenburg Waterfront Association. “That was a strong endorsement for our initiative to the Nova Scotia province that there was little objection to the vision for our town. If there had been controversy on the local level, I think they would have stayed away.” Though Lunenburg’s economy is more diverse and land-based, what Eisenhauer means by a working waterfront is working ships home-ported in town.

Clearwater had originally based their decision to leave when they changed their methods of fishing by processing the seafood on the boats rather than on the shore in Lunenburg, taking them directly to shipping facilities in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, farther down the coast. This saved time and money by eliminating the additional fuel costs of making an extra trip to shore.

However, this represented a significant loss to the town since the company was a major employer. Eisenhauer says there was an estimated 120 crew and shore-based jobs that were lost with the dozen or so vessels moving, even though Clearwater maintained administrative facilities with 20 or so employees.

The Lunenburg Waterfront Future Committee immediately formed after the Clearwater announcement was made, and it spent the next two years crafting a master plan for the revitalization of the waterfront that was presented in April 2005. Working with the group was the Lunenburg Waterfront Association that formed at the end of 2004 and eventually absorbed the original committee. Eisenhauer says it was member Capt. Daniel Moreland’s idea to begin negotiations to buy the property from Clearwater in early 2005.

“We were disappointed when they announced [they were] leaving, but I don’t think it was the end of the world,” says Moreland, who is captain of the bark training ship Picton Castle. “Our challenge ahead was to prove this was a good place to work and to bring a vessel.”

Then there was the question of money. Eisenhauer says Clearwater was skeptical of the town’s interest when negotiating a price because they weren’t entirely sure they could pay for it. However, on Aug. 24, 2005, Nova Scotia announced they would fund the $5.5 million to buy the property and the transfer was complete by September 2005.

“It was fantastic,” says member Barbara Zwicker, whose husband’s family has been longtime residents. “Lunenburg is a jewel — we’ve saved a gem of a town.”

Now, Clearwater is back on the scene. In late 2007, the company confirmed its plans to centralize its fleet administration offices in Lunenburg, doubling the employee base of the existing office. They now lease property from the Lunenburg Waterfront Association, and even have a fishing research vessel permanently docked in the town.

“Our move to centralize was to create efficiencies,” says Colin MacDonald, CEO of Clearwater. “We have a long history with Lunenburg and it seemed a logical location.”

With Clearwater back in town, other organizations have jumped aboard. West Island College International’s Class Afloat program, based in Lunenburg, brought their classic schooner Concordia into town this summer. Though she is at sea for 10 months of the year, Lunenburg will now be her home port for refits and maintenance. Several buildings have been sold for retail purposes, and the town is currently looking for a tenant for the recently restored three-story warehouse and adjacent wharf known as the Zwicker property.

“We have some irons in the fire for more recent development, and we are making good progress staying on our plan and our schedule,” says Eisenhauer. “While we could’ve become a tourist destination, our history is [a] working waterfront. Without that, we would lose what makes the character of our town.”

For information on the association, visit www.lunenburgwaterfront.ca.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.