SALEM — It may seem that Mayor Kim Driscoll has eyes only for "land-side" developments like the $106 million state courthouse and the proposed MBTA garage, but of late she has been casting longing glances at the deep blue sea.
Two weeks ago, the mayor and other city officials flew to Seattle to meet with representatives from Holland America Line, a major cruise company that stops at New England ports.
Recently, she created a new part-time position — port development manager — in the hope of generating more business and revenue for the city's waterfront.
This week, the Planning Department is going over final details on a $1.3 million state contract to improve the Blaney Street landing, site of the city's temporary ferry dock. Work is scheduled to begin soon and be completed by Memorial Day, the start of the 2011 ferry season.
Late in the fall, thanks to a $2.5 million federal grant, construction will begin on a 260-foot section of a new concrete and steel pier at Blaney Street, signaling the start of the long-awaited Salem Wharf.
In addition, the city has received state funds to do the engineering and permitting work to dredge the South River basin, the shallow waterway that runs along a new harborwalk between the Congress Street bridge and Lafayette Street.
The waterfront, for anyone not paying attention, is making waves.
It is no coincidence that this flurry of activity follows Salem's acquisition of the Blaney Street Landing from Dominion, the owner of the adjacent power plant.
It is time, the mayor said, to start "looking backward a little bit" to the days of Salem's maritime past, when the city made its living off the water.
"We now recognize we don't have great highway access, but we have a great waterfront," she said. "And if we can find a way to connect our economic development needs with our harbor, we ought to do it."
The city has multiple harbor goals: Create greater public access, establish a bustling commercial pier with whale watches and charter boats, stimulate the downtown economy, and generate more revenue for the city.
They are challenging goals, officials concede, that can be achieved only through a slow, complex and uncertain process.
The Salem ferry is a case in point. The high-speed catamaran to Boston had a strong season in 2010, carrying a record 89,000 passengers. But the operators had to lower ticket prices to boost sales and concede they need to do better in future years.
Three small cruise ships made stops here last summer, but turning Salem into a regular cruise port is years away. The trip to Seattle reinforced the reality that cruise lines plan years in advance and already have itineraries set through 2012.
"That doesn't happen on a dime," the mayor said of getting Salem as a port of call. "You need to start now."
The city still needs to secure more than $10 million in federal and state funds to complete the Salem Wharf, build a permanent terminal and do the necessary dredging.
"There's still a lot to be done," said Kathy Winn, deputy director of planning and community development and the city's point person on the waterfront.
City officials see the wharf as a piecemeal project but are hopeful that the millions already secured in public funds will help leverage more dollars.
"We never anticipated being able to land $20 million in one lump sum," Driscoll said.
Those same officials, however, are encouraged by the progress to date.
A contractor has been hired to pave the dirt-surfaced Blaney Street landing, creating nearly 140 parking spaces, and to build an interim terminal building. That new structure will have several features the present one does not, namely indoor bathrooms and a more suitable waiting room.
Although it has happened with little fanfare, the city is close to beginning building its permanent pier, a T-shaped facility that will be more than 350 feet in length. This year's construction on the first section is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2012.
The new port manager, Russ Vickers, is currently a part-time, hourly employee, but it's a start, Driscoll said. The former owner of Hawthorne Cove Marina has served on many harbor committees, she said, and "has superior knowledge around this project."
The dredging of the South River basin, while likely years away, is seen as another important step toward connecting the city to the sea.
"That's where the waterfront comes right into the downtown," Winn said.