Bristol awarded grant for maritime center

Diane Williamson, Town of Bristol Community Development director, looks over the proposed docks behind the rug factory. Diane Williamson, Town of Bristol Community Development director, looks over the proposed docks behind the rug factory.

Diane Williamson, Town of Bristol Community Development director, looks over the proposed docks behind the rug factory.

Diane Williamson, Town of Bristol Community Development director, looks over the proposed docks behind the rug factory.

The Town of Bristol is one step closer to turning the Downtown Naval Reserve Armory into a municipal maritime center.

The town received notification it was awarded an $860,000 Boating Infrastructure Grant on Wednesday.

“One of the things I think was appealing to the (grant) funders was that we were able to go to them and say we have matching funds,” said Diane Williamson, director of community development for the Town of Bristol.

The matching funds Williamson referenced stem from a $9-million bond referendum approved by voters last November. At that time, conceptual drawings of the armory renovation carried a $1.8 million price tag.

“The whole concept of the referendum, and why I think we were successful, is because the voters knew we needed to be proactive in taking care of our old buildings and do something with them,” Ms. Williamson said. “And we needed money for that.”

The maritime center will feature showers, sanitary facilities, televisions, information about downtown shops and restaurants, as well as areas where transient boaters can converse.

“Our vision was to have a place that welcomes visiting boaters,” Ms. Williamson said. “This maritime center would give boaters a place to socialize, to meet and great each other, and opens Bristol up to another avenue for tourism.”

A maritime center had always been present in Bristol’s comprehensive plan, but it didn’t become a tangible idea until 2009 when the town sanctioned a public building study, which gathered information about old, derelict town-owned buildings and possible ideas for their use.

“The maritime center came up again, and we thought we’d just see what we could do with this,” Ms. Williamson said.

First, the town had to determine if having a maritime center would be beneficial to its growth: Would the town see a return on restoring the armory and what kind of revenue could be generated from transient boaters?

In 2012, utilizing a grant from the Roger Williams University Community Partnership Center, students conducted a feasibility study of the maritime center concept.

Students calculated that the average visiting boater spends about $70 a day in Bristol. If Bristol’s harbor was fully utilized all 100 days of the boating season, the town would would see an economic impact of $707, 000 per year. That’s if Bristol’s harbor were fully utilized – all 101 of it’s docks, moorings and anchorage.

The boater transient capacity is dependent upon a partnership between the Town of Bristol, Bristol Yacht Club, Herreshoff Marine Museum and Bristol Marine.

“If someone were to call up and Bristol’s docks are full, then they would call around to other places to see if there was room,” Ms. Williamson said.

Still, if the harbor only went to 50-percent capacity year-round, the town would still see an economic gain of $359,000.

From conception, there was never a concrete timeline to complete the maritime center project, Ms. Williamson said. That didn’t deter the town from beginning to market itself as tourist destination. The town was branded through Explore Bristol, inviting tourists to explore the seaside community “by land or sea.”

“We know that a lot of tourism is through word-of-mouth, and to see results from that takes three years,” Ms Williamson said. “We started telling everyone about Bristol now, so we’re ready for them when the maritime center is done.”

With the transfer of the Quinta-Gamelin Army Reserve building to the town, council members will have to prioritize their capital projects, Ms. Williamson said.

“Our next step is to meet with the town administrator and department heads and possibly set up a committee,” she said. “The plans we have for the maritime center are conceptual. We will need something more concrete to work with moving forward.”

Whether the town will seek out a design-build project, or hire an architect to create plans and then put those plans out for bid, remains to be seen.

“Newport’s center was a design-build and they recommend we go that route because they had great success,” Ms. Williamson said. “But at this point, I’m not sure.”

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