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From the cab of his seafood truck, Louis Giannola watches pedestrians wandering with their noses in their phones as shoppers, diners and frustrated motorists crowd Commercial Street on busy summer days.
“It’s nuts down there!” he says.
With the decline of New England’s groundfishing fleet and other related industries, Maine’s largest city and other coastal hubs throughout the region increasingly rely on summer tourists to keep the port busy as they strike a balance between tourism and traditional marine industry.
That means trucks have to avoid tourists streaming from cruise ships or staying at new hotels. For tourists, it means experiencing an authentic working port where they can see lobstermen offloading their catch and enjoy a lobster dinner — at the same time.
All told, the economic impact from tourism on Portland’s waterfront is projected to be $300 million this year, according to the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We believe the tourists want to participate in an authentic environment,” said Bill Needelman, city waterfront director. “We’ve created an environment where tourism fills in the gaps, pays for the infrastructure, and then gets to participate in that environment in a real and authentic way.”
For some ports, tourism has been a reliable fallback where other strategies have failed.
In Fall River, Massachusetts, the waterfront was developed as a tourist destination after state transportation officials concluded in 2013 that the city’s Designated Port Area would not likely become an active industrial port.
Bridgeport, Connecticut, where bananas and other imports were once unloaded, is now envisioned as a recreation spot with a promenade, water taxis and a fishing pier.
The transition isn’t always seamless.
Long before foodies put Portland’s Old Port restaurants on the map, breweries popped up and cruise ships came a-calling, Portland Harbor was a major transportation hub with heavy freight coming and going on sailing ships. Piers were occupied by heavy industry with canning, lumber milling and other manufacturing plants.
The port changed when transport shifted to trucks, and fisheries assumed a bigger role. These days, with the decline of cod and haddock stocks in New England, it’s largely the lobster industry — along with tourism — that keeps the port busy.
The waterfront became a political battlefield in the late 1980s after condos were built on some wharves, raising concerns that the port would become a yuppie playground that would muscle out fishermen. That came several years after Tony DiMillo overhauled a dilapidated pier to create a restaurant and the first marina for recreational boaters.
These days, the city appears to have found a balance between fishing and marine interests and recreational and tourism interests.
Even though tourists shop in stores and eat in restaurants along the waterfront on Commercial Street, much of the space behind them on the piers is designated for marine use.
City ordinances require marine businesses to comprise the majority of the ground floor of piers, but other businesses are allowed to use upper floors. Because of that, one of the region’s biggest law firms, Pierce Atwood LLP, moved to the waterfront. Berthing remains reserved mostly for commercial vessels.
The smell of bait sometimes overpowers the fresh sea breeze, and refrigerated seafood trucks sometimes leak fishy water onto the pavement. There are noisy forklifts and boats and trucks.
None of that seems to bother tourists in the congested central waterfront.
The city built a cruise ship terminal to draw in more visitors, and there’s regular ferry service to Nova Scotia aboard the Nova Star. At the same time, the Maine Port Authority aims to build a cold storage building to bolster a container operation that brings in frozen seafood from Europe.
“Portland is a little more intimate for a lack of a better word. Everybody is a little bit closer together, so you have to find ways that all of this works together,” said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.
Writers Hugh Bailey of the Connecticut Post and Kevin P. O’Connor of The Herald News of Fall River contributed to this report.