Next 2017: JB Turner oversees Front Street Shipyard's impressive revival of Belfast's working waterfront

BY James McCarthy

Photo / Ted Axelrod,
Photo / Ted Axelrod,
JB Turner, president and general manager of Front Street Shipyard.

JB Turner

President and managing partner Front Street Shipyard, Belfast

A good day, says Front Street Shipyard President JB Turner, is when he's working on “some kind of fun project with a good group of people. Everything goes well, there are no stumbling blocks and the employees are not unhappy.”

By that definition, Turner's days as the managing partner of the six-acre shipyard on Belfast's waterfront have been decidedly “good.”

In just six years, Front Street Shipyard has reached $14 million in yearly revenues and created 100 jobs. It's transformed a once-derelict property abandoned by Stinson Seafood into a bustling working waterfront that's marketed by the city as a “hidden gem for boaters” sailing in Penobscot Bay. Its marina's 46 slips sell out every year and the shipyard's refitting and repair capabilities bring in vessels literally from around the world.

The busy-ness of the shipyard is evident to anyone strolling along Belfast's $1.5 million Harbor Walk linking the city's Steamboat Landing Park with the Armistice Foot Bridge. Boats of all sizes and in various stages of completion undergo refitting inside several open-bayed buildings.

Turner acknowledges that even six years into their shared venture, his ownership partners still express amazement at how busy the shipyard and its marina continue to be. They include a veritable Maine boatbuilding dream team of Taylor Allen, owner of Rockport Marine Inc.; Steve White, owner of Brooklin Boat Yard; and Kenneth Priest II, former owner of Kenway Corp. and a pioneer in composite boatbuilding. His take on their shared success is a modest “I'm not surprised.”

“I can believe it,” he says. “I had no doubt we'd be here six years later. I knew that if we focused on the highest of standards for service and craftsmanship — at our marina, in storage, refits and boat-building — we'd be successful.”

From Day 1, as Turner and his partners plotted the configuration of buildings needed at their six-acre Belfast yard, they made sure it would support their four-pronged business plan of production and customized boat-building, refitting yachts, general dock-and-boat-yard services and special projects related to offshore wind and ocean energy. The partners' $15 million investment to date includes a satellite facility a little more than a mile away in Belfast with seven more buildings and seven acres of space for boat storage, and a facility in Bucksport for custom and production composite boat-building.

Each of the partners knows from experience, he says, the take-home lesson from Maine's centuries-long tradition of shipbuilding.

“You have to be adaptable — always,” he says.

Early investments in Building 5, a five-story 22,000-square-foot open-bay facility large enough for repair and refitting boats of up to 120 feet long — as well as leased 165-ton and 485-ton travel lifts — signaled to the yachting world that Front Street was ready and able to compete with the biggest and best yacht yards on the East Coast.

Without those investments, Turner says, “we'd have been just a boat yard. We're a shipyard on purpose.”

The refits of large yachts, he explains, are long-term projects involving virtually every trade. A few, like the 2012 complete stem-to-stern refit of the 106-foot aluminum yacht Stoneface, can take as much as a year to complete, leveling out any lulls that might occur between custom boatbuilding or seasonal servicing jobs.

Turner says his goal is to provide steady year-round work for each of his 100 employees. That instills loyalty and deepens the expertise of his team.

“Our projects tend to be challenging,” he says. “People like the challenges. They get a chance to be creative.”

Turner readily acknowledges that every boat refitted at Front Street Shipyard is a “calling card” in whatever ports it visits across the world's seven seas. One job frequently leads to another.

A case in point: Stoneface's owner was so pleased he delivered a North Sea trawler-turned-yacht named Sindbad to the shipyard last fall for a similar makeover that includes replacing all of the decking. Built in 1962, the 80-foot 150-ton steel-hulled Sindbad is well on its way to looking like a brand-new vessel.

Looking ahead, Turner says the final piece of the puzzle for the Belfast yard is finally in place, with Finance Authority of Maine's approval on Aug. 17 of loan insurance for $3.6 million by Androscoggin Bank, which leverages financing from other sources for the $5.8 million Building 6 project.

Groundbreaking is expected next spring, with the five-story 22,000 square feet building to be completed by late summer. “It enables us to compete better,” Turner says. “There are a lot of boats we could bid on and put in there and keep us rolling with inside work.”

Add to that the partnership with Norwegian shipyard Brødrene Aa, a world leader in the construction of high-speed ferries made of carbon-fiber composites. Still in the early stages, the partnership doing business as Arcadia Alliance is poised to meet the needs of New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities for high-speed ferries capable of going faster than 25 knots and carrying between 150 and 250 passengers per trip.

Turner sees plenty more good days ahead.

“What I like about this work is just being able to do different things all the time,” he says. “I like the artistic side of making something from nothing.”