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Case Study: Improving Management at a Municipal Fish Pier

In its 15-year history, Rockland's fish pier has faced many growing pains. Management by three different private contractors left a wake of bad feelings, unresolved debt and neglected infrastructure. "It was clear that we needed to turn the situation around" says Rockland City Manager, Tom Hall, "and we wanted to know which strategies would be effective." With support from the Maine Coastal Program, researchers at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. CEI) sought to determine the most successful management approaches used at Maine's other municipal fishing piers--in Cape Porpoise, Saco, Portland, Vinalhaven, Stonington and Eastport.

Cape Porpoise Pier"All those piers are well-run and offered valuable lessons," says CEI researcher Steve Cole, "but Cape Porpoise stood out as an especially good model." Cole attributes much of that success to having the same harbormaster/pier manager, Dave Billings, for the past 14 years.

Strong municipal support has made his job easier, Billings says: "you've got to be a town employee in this job." It also helps that he was raised locally and worked previously as a commercial fishermen so he knows what life is like for the 52 members of his pier. Billings has gained their respect by being honest and even-handed, consistent in rule-making but not overbearing. "You don't hit them with a two-by-four right off the bat," he says. "If you lead them gradually, even those who object to a change will end up asking 'why did we wait this long?'."

"Let fishermen have a voice as much as you can," Billings counsels. In Cape Porpoise, a pier committee made up of highly respected fishermen, recreational boaters and citizens helps to shape rules and regulations. Billings also recommends working from a long-range plan. The one he wrote when he began the job has helped him facilitate many major improvements over the past 14 years.

Taking guidance from the recent pier study, Rockland officials have created a new city department to oversee their pier. They are adopting a system of fixed fees, an approach that has proven successful at other municipal piers. With time, Rockland hopes to diversify and expand its operations. "Our first priority, though is to take on the role of a property manager," says Tom Hall "and provide a clean, safe and efficient operation. The City doesn't have the profit motive directing decisions so it should be easier for us to run."

[Adapted from the Maine Coastal Program's newsletter, Maine Coastline, Summer 2003]

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