In October, State Reps. Tony Cabral, Chris Markey, Chris Hendricks, Bill Straus and Paul Schmid wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker warning that MassDevelopment, a state agency under his purview, “has apparently given a priority to one bidder which will result in the elimination of shipping, ferry access and commercial fishing from the New Bedford State Pier.”

The House delegation did not cite any evidence that led them to believe the favored proposal would eliminate Seastreak’s ferry service or international shipping from the State Pier, and other politicians familiar with the procurement process say those possibilities are unlikely.

But the delegation’s letter has exposed a smoldering turf war over the pier at a defining moment for New Bedford’s waterfront. As tourism grows and the offshore wind industry comes knocking, new business interests are jockeying for space on the city’s publicly owned piers. The hard work of balancing those interests is drawing new fault lines among New Bedford’s power players.

The eight-acre State Pier is the current focal point of this drama. The pier offers a convenient location for offshore wind contractors seeking space on an industrial waterfront near the nation’s first utility-scale offshore wind farms. But the pier is also coveted by other industries because of its location at the intersection of a waterfront highway and Union Street, a cobblestoned gateway to downtown New Bedford and its growing restaurant and nightlife scene.

On summer weekends, thousands of passengers visit the pier to ride the ferries to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cuttyhunk. The ferries dock next to police boats, colossal cargo ships bearing fruit from overseas and fishing vessels from the East Coast’s largest commercial fishing fleet.

Still, much of the pier remains a patchwork of empty parking lots.

In April, at the request of local officials who felt the pier could stimulate more tourism in New Bedford, MassDevelopment began seeking proposals from private developers interested in leasing the pier on a long-term basis from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The term of the lease could be as long as 35 years.

“There is nothing like the state pier,” said New Bedford State Sen. Mark Montigny. “It is just this big, huge, underutilized, grossly mismanaged space.”

Collaboration gives way to conflict

Montigny said that, for decades, most local officials agreed on a vision for State Pier that included new buildings for restaurants, food vendors and retailers like a “fresh off the boat” fish market. To protect that vision, Montigny’s legislation authorizing the lease of the pier limited the amount of space that the offshore wind industry could use there, setting a cap at 20%.

But Montigny and his colleagues in the state House of Representatives claim that the legislators who once controlled the project have now been shut out of the decision-making process.

“MassDevelopment, so far to date, has run an entirely secretive and closed process,” State Rep. Bill Straus said.

Five sources familiar with the procurement process, some of whom spoke under the condition of anonymity, said that MassDevelopment has met behind closed doors with New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell and a development team that includes Crowley Maritime – a marine logistics company seeking a local base as it competes for contracts to construct the nation’s first major offshore wind farms.

The sources said MassDevelopment is preparing to accept Crowley’s bid over a competing proposal from a consortium of the existing tenants on State Pier led by local businessman and attorney Andrew Saunders, who is developing a waterfront facility for Crowley’s competitor, Foss Maritime, in another part of the harbor.

A spokesperson for Crowley did not answer questions about their proposal. Neither did a spokesperson for MassDevelopment. But even the politicians raising alarms about the procurement process concede there is likely room for both the offshore wind support services Crowley is seeking to provide and the ferry services that provide crucial transportation links between the mainland and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cuttyhunk.

“I just can't imagine any official supporting diminished ferry service,” Montigny said. “I believe ferry service is so important now to the city and to the islands that it’s just not realistic.”

Still, Montigny said rumors continue to circulate that New Bedford’s ferry companies and its remaining international shipping industry are in danger of losing their place on the pier. Maritime International, a stevedoring company that provides one of the last sources of employment for the local longshoremen’s union, relies on access to a refrigerated warehouse on the pier.

“The only thing I can say to you is, sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Montigny said. “Even if none of it’s true, I'm troubled by the lack of transparency.”

David Wechsler, Maritime International’s president, said his company has been left in the dark about their future on the pier.

“I’m getting that sense that, after investing year after year in marketing the state pier, that the international shipping component that we’ve developed could be just thrown in the wastebasket,” Wechsler said.

A representative from Seastreak, the private company that operates the ferries between New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, declined to comment.

In a brief statement, a spokesperson for MassDevelopment said the agency has not finished evaluating proposals from interested developers. “We expect to have more information to share in the near future when that evaluation is complete,” said Matthew Mogavero.

Legislators scramble for information

In an effort this fall to pry information from an agency he once invited into the decision-making process, Sen. Montigny tried and failed to move an amendment through the State House forcing MassDevelopment to disclose more about the redevelopment proposals it is considering.

“Let me stress that if I didn't do the work, I wouldn't sound so proprietary,” Montigny said in an interview. “It was my negotiations to get MassDevelopment in there, not because I had faith that they're the best thing since sliced bread, but because nothing was working and no alternative existed.”

Montigny’s colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives — Reps. Cabral, Markey, Hendricks, Straus and Schmid — have echoed his concerns about the secrecy surrounding the procurement process.

“Apparently, MassDevelopment has decided that City Hall can be told what is otherwise being kept as a secret from the public and state officials like myself,” said Rep. Straus, who chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation.

A future for New Bedford’s ferries

For all the controversy over who controls State Pier’s future, state legislators and New Bedford’s mayor still share common ground in their respective visions for the property.

Contrary to what some of his peers in local government have alleged, Mayor Mitchell said he supports the continuation of ferry service at the State Pier.

“After years of stakeholder meetings and planning sessions, a clear consensus of residents and waterfront businesses favors the development of the long-underutilized State Pier for a variety of maritime uses,” Mitchell said in an emailed statement, “including the existing ferry services, along with retail uses that enable the central waterfront to be more closely knitted to the downtown.”

“I continue to advocate in favor of this consensus,” Mitchell’s statement said.

There is no deadline for MassDevelopment to announce a winning proposal for the redevelopment of State Pier. Guidelines laid out in the request for proposals say that the development team behind the winning proposal will have up to a year to finalize their plan for the pier and reach agreements with any existing tenants they hope to keep.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.