SALEM - The state has approved nearly $1 million to revitalize the Salem waterfront, an underused port that showed signs of life this year with the return of the Salem ferry.
The bulk of the money - $750,000 - is earmarked for acquisition of the Blaney Street landing, the private, 2-acre site off Derby Street used by the ferry. Another $200,000 was approved for the design of the new Salem wharf, a large pier planned for the landing, which officials said could be used by small cruise ships, commercial vessels and fishing boats.
"We're ecstatic," said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who attended Thursday's announcement before the Seaport Advisory Council. "It's terrific we have these dollars to get these projects off the ground."
There is a long way to go, however, before the city owns this key piece of waterfront property and can start to build a permanent wharf to replace the small structure currently used by the ferry.
The city has not started formal talks with Dominion, the Virginia energy company that owns the land and also owns and operates the adjacent Salem Harbor Station power plant.
The mayor said she has had "very preliminary talks" with Dominion but has made clear that the city needs to own the land before it can build a wharf there.
"We need to get to the point where we have ownership and control of the land," she said.
Currently, the city has a three-year lease with Dominion to use the landing for the ferry, which runs back and forth to Boston between May and October.
For its part, Dominion was noncommittal about the land, which the power plant once eyed as a staging for construction if it had to make major improvements to comply with state pollution regulations. There are no current construction plans.
"We were happy to be able to help out the city of Salem and get the ferry up and running," said Dan Genest, a spokesman in Virginia. "But currently there are no negotiations for the sale of the property, and we have not been approached and have not made any commitment to sell at this time."
Driscoll said she expects those talks to begin soon.
The city also needs a lot more money to buy the property, which the previous owner of the power plant purchased for $2.2 million. The site is assessed for $1.7 million.
The mayor hopes to raise those funds through state grants. Driscoll said she is eyeing a grant from the Executive Office of Transportation, which provided $2.3 million this year to buy the ferry.
"We want to use this grant to piggyback with other grant resources," she said. "We are in the infancy stage, but we're obviously looking to leverage the $750,000."
The $950,000 has been approved by the Seaport Advisory Council but won't be released until the city has design contracts in place and a purchase and sale agreement with the power plant. The funds also need final approval from the governor.
Acquiring the land and building a pier are crucial steps, the mayor said, to put Salem in position to go after more waterfront business, especially small cruise ships and tourist boats looking to spend a day in a small port. That business, she said, will do a lot to revitalize the waterfront area.
"After Cape Cod, Salem is the No. 1 destination people request information for" from state tourist boards, Driscoll said.
Driscoll praised Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, who announced the Salem funding at her final meeting as chairwoman of the Seaport Advisory Council.
"She deserves a lot of the credit for the rebirth of the Salem waterfront," the mayor said. Healey, a Beverly resident, also announced a small waterfront grant for her hometown at the same meeting.