Belford port plan invites tourism

Officials say revitalization is based on economics

BY JAMIE ROMM Staff Writer

PHOTOS BY CHRIS KELLY staff A revitalization plan for the Port of Belford in Middletown, an important commercial fishing hub, includes a maritime heritage center, an inn and a boardwalk. PHOTOS BY CHRIS KELLY staff A revitalization plan for the Port of Belford in Middletown, an important commercial fishing hub, includes a maritime heritage center, an inn and a boardwalk. Middletown’s latest plan for redevelopment of the Port of Belford incorporates features that promote tourism, including a maritime heritage center and a bedand breakfast inn.

The updated plan for the port is being touted by officials as one that focuses on financially viable options that could be part of a development plan for the commercial fishing area.

“When we started this most recent effort in 2006 and 2007, my commitment to the fishermen was that this hopefully would be the last plan,” said Anthony Mercantante, township administrator. “We’ve come up with a plan here that could actually be implemented, and what we did was different than what was done in the past, which was we looked at economic viability.”

Mercantante said that over the years, there have been plans that did not come to fruition. When the time came to come up with another plan, he hoped it would be a plan that could be put into place.

ERIC SUCAR staff A redevelopment plan for the Port of Belford would build on improvements already in place, like the Belford Ferry Terminal. ERIC SUCAR staff A redevelopment plan for the Port of Belford would build on improvements already in place, like the Belford Ferry Terminal. The aim of the redevelopment plan is to revitalize the struggling fishing industry at the co-op, located on Main Street in Belford.

The township presented the plan, titled “Port of Belford: Township of Middletown Economic Feasibility Study and Conceptual Development Plan,” to the public at a meeting Jan. 6 at the Middletown Cultural Arts Center on Church Street.

The 63-page plan outlines development options for a 6-acre tract that is currently owned by the Belford Seafood Co-op and a 9-acre parcel owned by Seaport Associates.

According to Mercantante, the major difference between this and previous plans for the port is the focus on the economics of ideas for redevelopment.

The plan includes a maritime heritage center, a marine research center, a live fish market, a bed-and-breakfast known as the Bayshore Inn, and a retail booth at the ferry terminal.

The co-op was founded in 1953 and has been a central hub for commercial fishermen to dock their boats and to sell their catch.

The surrounding area was revitalized with the completion of the Bayshore Ferry Terminal and the Dunes at Shoal Harbor, a luxury townhouse development.

The township is aiming to build on the improvements already in place.

State funding was used to pay for the study.

“In 2006, the township received a $75,000 grant from the Office of Smart Growth to develop the plan,” township planner Jason Greenspan said. “Over the years, there have been many plans … for this property. This plan is more action-oriented; it’s for something that would be implementation-oriented.”

He said a 2007 public hearing on the future of the port drew a lot of public input, after which the township held stakeholder interviews with people who have vested interests in the economic viability of the Port of Belford to support the local fishing industry.

“In many towns, including Middletown, there is a topic that many disagree on, debate and argue; there are very few where this is not the case,” Mercantante said. “This is one of those rare topics. I don’t think you’ll find very many people at all in the area who don’t agree that preservation of the heritage of fishing in this area is critically important and needs to be preserved and protected.”

He said the current plan is not just a diagram of what the township wants.

“It’s easy to have drawings and pictures that look very nice, but we don’t know realistically if all of that can be done,” Mercantante said. “We wanted to emphasize and analyze the options of what we could financially do with this area.”

Bradley Decker, a planner with the Louis Berger Group, which prepared the study for Middletown, said the project would benefit the fishing community and Belford as a whole.

“It’s imperative that we look at the market viability for a project like this that is stressed even more [when] looking at the economic environment we are currently in,” Decker said. “It’s also going to be stressed for funding from government agencies and private investors.”

A facility for the sale of freshly caught fish is part of the plan that, according to a representative from the Louis Berger Group, would benefit local fishermen.

A strong demand for live fish as opposed to frozen fish in the local market would providemore profit with the same number of fish being sold, he said.

Also, the facility would be buffered from national and international competition, which, according to the Berger Group, would give Belford a competitive advantage.

According to the plan, “The Mid-Atlantic region is experiencing rapid expansion of the live fin fish market. While this market is currently dominated by farmed species … new and previously underutilized species are being used to meet the strong demand in this market.”

In addition, fishermen would benefit.

“Live fish sell for two to four times as much as frozen fish. The selling of live fish is a value-added specialty market that has the potential to increase fishermen’s earnings without increased catches,” the plan states.

But one idea rejected for the port is a clam purification plant, which the plan says isn’t economically viable because the “domestic market shows signs of saturation, [and] net revenue for producers has not been increasing.”

Another important aspect of the plan, according to Decker, is the availability of openspace grants for the site.

“We could garner local and state grants for recreational, environmental and educational purposes,” he said.

Potential funding would come from a variety of sources, including New Jersey Green Acres grants, Monmouth County, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The funding would be used for improvements including bulkhead rehabilitation, construction of a boardwalk, environmental structures and parking.

“This funding would possibly cover the bulkhead, which is a big issue,” said Decker. “Nothing can happen in the study area without repairing the bulkhead. It’s obvious when you go out there that it is almost falling into the water.”

Also as part of the open space plan, a park could be located within the port.

Another proposed feature of the plan is a marine research center.

According to Barbara Jones of the Louis Berger Group, the research center has the potential for educational and interactive activities that would highlight Belford’s unique cultural heritage.

“It would be for kids and adults,” Jones said. “While the kids can play games or learn how to build nets or fish, the adults can go on the boat with their kids and learn at the same time.”

She said that people in today’s society like to be more hands-on.

“People want to have the experience,” Jones said, “not just go and have pictures.”

The plan also calls for partnership with local colleges.

“A marine research facility, as an extension of a local educational institution … would greatly benefit from the regional location of the site and the proximity to commercial fishermen,” it states. “Collaborations could be created with existing commercial seafood businesses on research and development and innovation, new business incubation, and public programs, while meeting the facility’s educational and research mandate.”

Another aspect of the plan is a bed and breakfast-type hospitality facility that would encourage tourism.

During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, Mercantante was asked why the township doesn’t purchase the property to ensure the development of the port.

“It would cost us a fortune to buy up and develop all of that land,” Mercantante said. “We have to work with the owners and find a developer who will hopefully see our same vision.

According to Mercantante, the next step would be to start implementing some of the projects and to apply for permits before bringing anything to the Planning Board.

“We now have to look at the proposals,” Mercantante said.

When asked if there were plans for the surrounding area in Belford, he said the revitalization is the first of many projects and would encourage others.

“It will help Belford grow,” Mercantante said. “Everything leads into something else.”

Contact Jamie Romm at jromm@gmnews.