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A change at the helm for Maritime Gloucester

Balf aims to extend reach of education, tourism efforts

Tom Balf looks over his domain as the new executive director of Maritime Gloucester. Tom Balf looks over his domain as the new executive director of Maritime Gloucester. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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GLOUCESTER - Downstairs at Maritime Gloucester, some fifth-graders watched as an instructor dissected a cod. Upstairs, Thomas Balf was dissecting the future of the city’s harbor.

“There’s this connection between the great maritime history of Gloucester and what might that maritime future look like,’’ he said.

Balf, 53, starts work Dec. 1 as the new executive director of Maritime Gloucester, formerly known as the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center. Balf fills the role of Harriet Webster, who held the post since before the waterfront center opened in 2002, and died in June after battling a blood disorder. But even without her loss, the recently renamed nonprofit organization would be at what Balf calls a “pivotal’’ time.

“We’ve done a lot of internal searching and soul-searching, so to speak, and had some focus groups,’’ said David Warner, chairman of Maritime Gloucester’s board of directors. “We have a direction that is basically an expansion of what we’ve been doing, but, for our scale, a fairly large expansion.’’

Maritime Gloucester has committed to expand its educational mission in particular, Warner said, attracting many more students from beyond the immediate area and helping build skills in science and related fields.

Before he even formally starts his job, Balf will take part in the city’s maritime industry summit, a program of discussions Tuesday and Wednesday focused on building the new maritime port economy. A long-term goal is to identify new kinds of businesses, from pure research facilities to biotech companies and green boat-builders, that could be attracted to fill space on the waterfront once occupied by the fishing industry.

“We think there’s tremendous synergies in our bringing in 30,000 to 50,000 visitors, bringing in 3,500 to 5,000 in our educational programs. This interface between the ocean and the land at Maritime Gloucester gives people one more reason to come down to the harbor,’’ Balf said.

Among other things, Balf is charged with doubling those attendance numbers in five years. “I saw that in a press release’’ on his hiring, he said with a laugh. He will also be working to raise Maritime Gloucester’s profile under its new slogan, Oceans of Discovery.

Maritime Gloucester, at 23 Harbor Loop, attracts visitors with a mix of science and history, including a marine science lab with hands-on activities for students in kindergarten through Grade 8, the Burnham Brothers Marine Railway (in operation hauling vessels out of the water for repairs since 1847), and museum-style exhibitions in the new Gorton’s Seafood Gallery.

The very variety of its offerings, andthat the center closes during the winter, may have held it back, Balf said. He expects that a year from now the center will be open year-round.

The organization has nearly finished rebuilding its main pier, and this fall debuted a new star attraction, the 55-foot schooner Ardelle. Its owner, Harold Burnham, and Maritime Gloucester still have to iron out exactly what their business relationship is, but the wooden schooner built at Burnham’s boatyard in Essex will provide both tourism and educational cruises, as well as visibility for the center.

“It is here on the pier and just presents tremendous opportunities. It’s a beautiful schooner and we look forward to utilizing that as a platform for education and discovering the ocean,’’ Balf said.

Maritime Gloucester will also embark on a major capital campaign soon, he said, with a target figure yet to be determined. The money could be used for everything from improving the center’s physical plant to increasing outreach to schools, he said.

“I’m coming in here with an engaged board, and these new opportunities with the Ardelle . . . we intend to be ambitious’’ with the fund-raising goal, he said.

For the last decade, Balf served as executive director of the Campus Consortium for Environmental Excellence, helping prominent institutions, including Harvard University, Boston University, Boston College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, improve their recycling, energy conservation, and sustainability efforts. He also has his own environmental consulting business.

His experience with the consortium in bringing together diverse constituencies should be helpful in his new job on the harbor, where tourism, environment, industry, education and commerce meet, Balf said. “The relevance to this job is, it was managing committees, it was being somewhat visionary, it was focused on nonprofits and how they achieve their goals,’’ he said.

Balf is a Rockport native - his late father was the painter Oliver Balf - and grew up near Old Garden Beach. “That was my playground,’’ he said. “In my mind, it was the place I first connected with the environment: playing on the beach, playing in tide pools, studying, playing, discovering the magic of the ocean.’’

He lives in the Bay View area of Gloucester with his wife and their two children. His Maritime Gloucester contract is still being worked out, but the job was advertised with a salary range of $50,000 to $75,000.

Joel Brown can be reached at