For a decade, Bristol Borough Council members welcomed crowds of landlubbers to their waterfront Doo Wop in the Park festival, their Friday-night band concerts, and their ethnic celebrations while hundreds of boaters dropped anchor in the Delaware River and soaked in the music.
The problem was that the boaters couldn’t come ashore because Bristol Lions Park — a tree-lined oasis of walking trails and monuments to the Bucks County borough’s Italian, Irish, Hispanic, and African American residents — is protected from the tidal river by a breakwater of big rocks, leaving no place for a boat to pull in.
“The boaters listened to the bands,” said Betty Rodriguez, council vice president, “and waved at us, like, ‘Hi! We’re having fun!’ and we waved back, like, “Hi! We’re having fun, too!’ But they couldn’t dock and visit our restaurants and shops.”
Then, in 2010, Ralph DiGuiseppe, council president, had a river-of-dreams vision: With a pier and floating day docks, boaters could shop and dine on Mill Street, which runs to the water, and bring new life to the main drag of this historic river town of 9,700.
After years of struggle to secure the $3 million funding, Bristol’s ship just came in. On Jan. 30, a crane barge arrived at the old town wharf, and construction workers now are installing the piles that will hold an 80-foot fishing pier.
Meanwhile, two floating concrete docks, each 250 feet long, are being built in Florida. They will be shipped in sections to Bristol and attached perpendicularly to the pier, and will provide safe harbor for 25 boats.
DiGuiseppe said the pier and docks should be finished by summer, when Bristol’s waterfront festival and concert season is in full swing. He envisions attracting river tour boats and tourist attractions such as the A.J. Meerwald, a restored 1928 oyster schooner docked in Bivalve, N.J.
He gave a shout-out to former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks), who in 2012 helped secure the initial funding — a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Boating Infrastructure Grant of $1.5 million. It took DiGuiseppe and his Bristol colleagues five years to raise the rest.
The Bucks County Open Space Delaware Riverfront Program contributed $1 million, and the Bristol-based Grundy Foundation pledged $250,000 for perpetual maintenance. Just when the 2016 deadlines on the construction permits and the initial federal funding were about to expire, State Rep. John Galloway, a Democrat, and State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, a Republican, joined forces to come up with the final $770,000 from Harrisburg.
”If we didn’t get all the funding together, we would have had to give the federal money back and there would’ve been no project at all,” said Greg Pezza, a borough councilman whose father, Bill, chairs the Raising the Bar Committee, a Bristol-boosting nonprofit that has been banging the drums for the docks since DiGiuseppe dreamed them up.
“Mill Street is our town center,” Pezza said. “Like so many small-town main streets, it had been hit pretty hard over the years. Everyone agreed we needed one big thing to get us over the hump.”
The arrival of the crane barge, he said, thrilled lifelong residents like himself. “Between Penn's Landing in Philadelphia to New Hope, we’re the only town with scenic access to the waterfront. If you go down to our waterfront on a spring day, there are hundreds of boats utilizing the river, but they weren’t utilizing our waterfront because there were no docks. Now, we’ll be the only town to have boat-commuter ability. This is not like a marina where you rent space. These are day docks, designed to pull your boat up, get off, go have dinner, do a little shopping, jump back in your boat and return home.”
Chester Szczucki, who has lived on the river in Bristol for 28 years, said he was optimistic the docks will boost businesses such as Mignoni Jewelry, which has been on Mill Street since 1947 and is owned by his wife and her family.
Szczucki, who launches his kayak from his own property, said he’s also excited that more people will be able to appreciate the river “as a wonderful, relatively untapped, under-appreciated resource,” including access to Burlington Island right across from the Bristol waterfront.
“I’ve gotten pictures there of great blue herons with six-foot wingspans, a nesting family of peregrine falcons, bald eagles, hawks, egrets,” he said. “Harlequin ducks and several rare bird species migrate through here. Being on the river really does open up a whole new world.”
Bill Pezza credits the dock project for stimulating everything from the $500,000 Mill Street Wharf townhouses now under construction on the waterfront to the ongoing expansion of the Mill Street Cantina restaurant and the upcoming opening of the Odd Logic Brewing Co. pub, where the windows are currently covered with foliage murals by local artist Jean-Marc Dubus and his daughter, Alexa, instead of brown paper.
The docks, he said, will bring new diners to the waterfront’s circa 1681 King George II Inn, and new audiences to its circa 1986 Bristol Riverside Theatre.
Pezza's Raising the Bar boosters entered Bristol in the Small Business Revolution-Main Street Contest sponsored by the Deluxe Corp., a provider of marketing services, and plastered the town with storefront posters asking residents to vote online. Last week came the announcement that the borough is in the lead for the first prize of $500,000 worth of downtown revitalization and promotion. Pezza hopes Bristol wins on Feb. 22 as another sign that his town is on the rise.
“Empty storefronts are down,” Pezza said. “The number of young entrepreneurs opening businesses is significantly up. Like main streets across the country, Mill Street used to be the commercial hub before the steel mill closings and the malls being built. We didn’t die, but we went into a deep sleep. Now, thanks to the new docks, we’re awakening.”