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Struggling Gloucester eyes cruise tourism

GLOUCESTER -- Captain Vito's Seafood sold lobster until there was no more. ''Cape Pond Ice" T-shirts, famously worn in ''The Perfect Storm," flew off the company's shelves. Middle-aged couples from Middle America took pictures and swigged beers beside fishermen at the Crow's Nest.

The visitors who poured off cruise ships that made six stops this year in the country's oldest working port were captivated by the city's authenticity as a fishing city. They liked the smell of fresh fish that lay heavily across the wharf as they disembarked, just a few feet from the dock where fishermen repair their nets.

For a few days this year, Gloucester tried on a new role: featured port on the cruise ship circuit. Many who live in this fishing city are eager for the return of the elegant liners that sailed into the harbor on a trial run.

A dream has begun to take hold in Gloucester, a nearly 400-year-old port where the fishing fleet has shriveled and some of the piers have crumbled. Many people who live along streets whipped by salt winds see their city's redemption in a plan to transform a once-derelict fishing wharf into an international marine terminal for cruise ships.

''It worked out good," said Vito Ciaramitaro, owner of the seafood restaurant that bears his name. ''Gloucester's going to change. We got to do something."

The architect of the plan is Frank Elliott, a third-generation longshoreman who began working as superintendent of operations at a Boston cruise ship terminal four years ago when jobs became scarce on the Gloucester wharves. He is looking for partners to help him raise $2 million to build the terminal on 2 acres he owns on Rowe Wharf.

''The eastern or western Caribbean cruises become old, especially to people that go on cruises all the time," said Greg Ketchen, coordinator of the city's harbor plan. ''People love Gloucester, especially because it's still rough. It hasn't been sanitized too much. We're not going to turn into boardwalks and benches and balloons."

Even as tourism expands, Gloucester remains a fishing city at its heart. Some families in town fear that embracing boatloads of cruisers will further diminish the city's fishing industry.

''It can't come back with cruise ships in there," said John ''Gus" Foote, a retired fisherman and vice president of the Gloucester City Council. ''It can't come back with big restaurants. It can't come back with condominiums."

Foote was in the minority when in September he voted against a critical piece of Elliott's proposal, a 240-seat restaurant that would help pay for the terminal. Foote, a city councilor for three decades, argued that the city needs to preserve its waterfront for a fishing industry rebound.

When he looks at other former fishing towns, such as Marblehead and Newburyport, Foote sees only what has been lost: acres of waterfront, once devoted to fishing, are now overrun with expensive condos. Foote said he feared a similar fate could befall Gloucester.

''There are people that would sell this harbor in a minute," he said. ''All the fishing industry would become a museum piece."

Elliott counters that Gloucester can ill afford to wait for its fishing industry to revive itself.

''That model just doesn't work economically anymore," Elliott said. ''The piers fall in; people are unemployed; taxes aren't paid to the city."

Elliott had the idea of bringing cruise ships to Gloucester in 2001, not long after he was forced by a lack of work in his hometown to find a job in Boston. One early morning, as he was preparing a ship to sail from Boston, an agent for another ship asked him if he knew a place where a cruise ship might dock.

As Elliott's plan began to unfold, he navigated the bureaucracy necessary to bring international cruise ship passengers into Gloucester. He received a Coast Guard license allowing the terminal to operate by showing he would meet the requirements of the Homeland Security Act. When the first ships arrived in May -- four Holland America Line cruises and two French boats -- tourists went through security controls beneath a temporary tent.

Holland America included Gloucester on its 1,300-passenger cruise that skips along the coast from New England to Canada, sometimes stopping in Bar Harbor, Maine; Halifax; or Montreal. In its online brochure, Holland America described the ''21st century fairy tale" that wedded the port of Gloucester with the glamour of Hollywood in the movie version of ''The Perfect Storm." The company paints Gloucester as a real-life fishing village untarnished by its brush with fame.

Still, the tourists were offered a number of classic resort options for their day in Gloucester, including leaving the city for a bus trip to Boston. For those who stayed, Gloucester officials provided shuttle buses to take tourists on shopping and eating excursions on downtown streets lined with Italian flags, a nod to the city's immigrant heritage.

Visitors could also sign up for whale watch tours or a one-hour excursion around the city, with stops at the Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial and the Cape Ann Historical Museum. The tour also took in Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Portuguese church that Holland America describes as a ''house of worship dear to the cruise passenger."

Shop owners were grateful for the business, especially for the ships that docked last month, after summer tourism had dwindled. When one of the ships arrived on a Monday, stores that normally shuttered their doors that day opened for the visitors.

Ann Goodwin, bartender at the Crow's Nest, was working when some of the cruise passengers, mostly ''middle-aged and up," wandered into the battered bar and ordered drinks. ''They just looked around, took pictures, asked questions about the movie," she said.

She recalled how the tourists mingled with local fishermen who frequent the bar, asking for recommendations on where to eat lunch.

Not all fishermen oppose the advent of cruise ships in Gloucester. On a sunny day last week, Dave Lacey was taking a break from a construction job outside the St. Peter's Club, the unofficial social center of the city's fishermen. ''It doesn't bother me none," said Lacey, a fisherman who returned in late October from a trip dragging for groundfish. ''As far as bringing people in, it's a good thing for the city."

''They'd better do something," said a man sitting beside Lacey on the bench, who declined to give his name. ''It's going to be a ghost town."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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