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Study: Working waterfronts are major contributor to economy




































































































Waterfronts and the activities that depend on them, such as shipping, fishing and transportation, have played a central role in shaping our nation’s history and they remain a significant driver of the nation’s economy and culture. Activity associated with America’s ocean and Great Lakes waterfronts accounts for 3.41 percent of total U.S. Gross Domestic Product and 4.85 percent of total employment, representing some 130,855 businesses employing 2.4 million full-time and part-time employees, according to new research released in March by the National Working Waterfront Network.

Today, goods and people move through 3,200 cargo and passenger facilities and 360 commercial ports in the United States. International trade via seaports is expected to significantly increase in the near future. Cargo and container ships are joined by tankers, barges, ferries, tugboats, cruise ships, and recreational watercraft, all of which are equally dependent on marine infrastructure and access to the coast. These waterfronts are not just on the ocean, but also the Great Lakes and 12,000 miles of inland waterways, extending the reach of working waterfront concerns to nearly all 50 states.

These numbers are from a recent economic analysis conducted by the National Working Waterfront Network with funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration.

“The economic impacts of working waterfronts have been difficult to quantify, because of the diversity of water-dependent uses that make up the waterfront, from tiny marinas, boat yards, and fish houses, to industrial ports, shipping, and transportation,” said Bob Swett of Florida Sea Grant, one of the authors of the study. The researchers relied upon detailed establishment-level data on employment and value added for more than 20 different water-dependent industry sectors available from the National Ocean Economics Program.

The economic study was part of the “Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit” released last month at the third National Working Waterfronts and Waterways Symposium in Tacoma, hosted by Washington and Oregon Sea Grant programs.

In addition to the research findings on the economic value of waterfronts, the Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit contains information about the historic and current uses of waterfront space, and identifies legal, policy, and financing tools that can be used to preserve, enhance, and protect waterfronts at local and regional levels, such as zoning and design standards, financing and tax approaches, research and mapping, conservation and restoration.

“The Symposium presented an ideal opportunity to get the toolkit into the hands of people who can use it to make a difference on their waterfront,” said Stephanie Showalter Otts, National Working Waterfront Network co-chair and director of the National Sea Grant Law Center, one of the lead institutions on the Toolkit project.

Working waterfronts need national as well as local attention, as expressed by many of the speakers at the Tacoma symposium, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and state Sen. Kevin Ranker; Ron Sims, former Deputy Secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development; and Kyle Molten of the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

As vital as working waterfronts are to the nation, they are at risk.

Working waterfronts share coastal real estate with a disproportionately large and growing segment of the U.S. population. Port authorities, city planners, conservation organizations, and the business community are among the many interests working to balance these varied and sometimes competing uses while addressing multiple challenges. Communities often lack an understanding of how waterfronts work. It can be difficult to garner political support for needed physical improvements. The pressures to convert valuable marine infrastructure to non-water-dependent uses, such as residences, offices and even sports stadiums, is constant.

Yet working waterfronts are unique and irreplaceable. Whether they date back decades or centuries, working waterfronts have developed in very different political and regulatory climates and could not be replicated under current standards. Given no or limited opportunity for new or expanded working waterfronts, capacity to accommodate marine commerce and industry is more or less fixed in most areas.

These sentiments are echoed by some of the 18 recommendations put forward by the National Working Waterfront Network, calling on political leaders to

While the exact future of any working waterfront is not always predictable, what is known is that they are unique places that support and preserve future economic opportunities, recreational access, and the cultural heritage of our nation’s coasts.


The National Working Waterfront Network is comprised of businesses, industry associations, nonprofits, local governments and communities, state and federal agencies, universities, Sea Grant programs, and individuals dedicated to supporting, preserving, and enhancing our nation’s working waterfronts and waterways. To learn more about the research findings, the toolkit, and working waterfront initiatives around the country, visit .