By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — It’s been nearly 101/2 years since the city purchased the Bea’s Sandwich Shop property along the Merrimack River with the intent of building a public boat ramp.
After a decade of delays, things were supposed to turn around for the project in 2012. Final designs for a scaled-down boat ramp were expected in the summer with construction soon to follow. But little progress was made last year.
“The project has stalled,” said Community Development Director William Buckley.
Buckley said the city now intends to scrap last year’s plan to build a “car-top launch facility,” or ramp suitable only for canoes, kayaks and other boats transportable atop a vehicle. Instead, Methuen will recommit to the original full-scale boat ramp design.
Money remains the sticking point. While the city has $200,000 remaining from a $250,000 grant it received in 2008 from the Massachusetts Department of Fish & Game, Buckley said the full-scale ramp will require an additional $200,000 to $400,000.
“We have yet to identify the additional funding sources,” said Buckley. “We’d prefer to do what was originally designed and ensure there’s open access to the river.”
There are currently no public boat ramps in the city with access to the Merrimack River.
Efforts to redevelop the Bea’s property into a riverfront park with a boat ramp go back to the administration of Mayor Sharon Pollard. The city bought the Bea’s property in January 2003 for $512,000.
The site is at 1110 Riverside Drive near the Interstate 93 rotary with Routes 110 and 113. It offers visitors a picturesque view of the Merrimack River but has been left vacant ever since the popular sandwich shop closed its doors there a decade ago.
All that’s left now is a parking lot and small monument commemorating Bea’s 1964 opening.
Buckley said his department was reluctant to move forward last year with the scaled-down ramp plans, which he described this week as “nothing more than a riverfront parking area.”
Buckley said the city is willing to be patient to ensure the full-scale project is completed. Larger boats that require a trailer would not have been permitted at the car-top ramp. Original plans were designed to accommodate midsize watercraft.
Adding to the uncertainty of the project is the looming I-93 rotary redesign.
Construction on the project is expected to begin this fall or in the spring of 2014 and will last until 2016. Mayor Stephen Zanni said this week that the city may consider allowing a state contractor to use the Bea’s site as a staging area during the rotary project.
By allowing access to the site, Zanni said the city may be able to negotiate for more boat ramp grant money.
“Maybe we can work out something,” said Zanni.
But according to Massachusetts Department of Transportation Spokesman Mike Verseckes, there are no ongoing conversations between the city and state about using the Bea’s site as staging area during rotary construction.
The state is also waiting for a redesigned boat ramp proposal from Methuen before further grant funding is discussed.
“We’re waiting for the city to submit a redesign,” said Reggie Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the Department of Fish & Game. “Once we see the redesign we can go from there.”
For now, city officials are focused on keeping the property clean. Jersey barriers, trash and overgrown brush were removed from the site last summer. Methuen Public Works Director Raymond DiFiore said city DPW crews now perform weekly maintenance there.
“We’re doing a good job of keeping that site clean,” added Buckley. “We’ve removed the eyesore.”