A parking lot on Saint John's waterfront is being transformed into a unique destination for cruise ship passengers, music lovers, and locals.
As the music festival Area 506's website boasts: "We're taking something that you've known and loved — the AREA 506 Vendor Village — and turning it into another amazing experience on the Saint John waterfront."
Ray Gracewood, the founder of the live music festival, said the new container village planned for the Water Street waterfront, will cater to music lovers and cruise passengers. The village will be open on all cruise ship days, but there will also be standard operating hours when there are no ships in port so locals can browse the site and its assortment of vendors.
Not only will the Area 506 concerts be held on site, other entertainment will be brought in throughout the summer months.
Gracewood said the plan is for a soft opening on June 8, when the season's largest cruise ship — Oasis of the Seas with 5,400 passengers — is scheduled to be in port. An official open house will be held on June 10 and 11. That will be followed by a film festival and a concert. Then comes the Memorial Cup and its related festivities.
The new container village will be the site of the Memorial Cup Bash on the Bay, which will feature 10 live music events.
At the moment, several of the shipping containers are still being retrofitted at a large warehouse on the west side. Gracewood said workers have been modifying the containers for the last two months in the 110,000-square-foot site he calls "the container loft."
"It's been a great home base for us for welding, for carpentry work, for electrical, for painting — all the things we need to come together for June."
Fifty-four modified containers will make up the container village. Gracewood said it will be a combination of retailers, service providers and vendors in a "market-style environment."
He said there will also be an area with a stage, waterfront viewing area and a container bar. The beer garden area will consist of three levels of outdoor patio that will offer views of the Bay of Fundy and the stage.
Another area, called "graffiti alley," will provide a place for local art "and just a cool place to sit back and have a coffee."
Gracewood said organizers are still working on the final list of vendors.
"We would target probably as many as 38 different vendors. I think where we'll land is probably closer to 30. As we found, a lot of vendors are actually interested in a full 40-foot container instead of half of a 40-foot container, which was our original plan."
The list of confirmed vendors includes East Coast Lifestyle, Epoch Chemistry Coffee House, and Bella's Traditional Ice Cream.
Gracewood said it was the versatility of the shipping containers that appealed to them. Aside from their usual use for shipping goods, they've been used for everything from storage to low-cost housing.
He said the containers offered organizers a lot of flexibility for the unique waterfront location of the Area 506 event. And they're easy to put together. Gracewood said "they go together like Lego."
Gracewood said they gathered information and ideas from similar projects around North America, but were always cognizant of the uniqueness of a venue on the Bay of Fundy waterfront. That meant they had to factor in wind and other weather conditions.
"So we, for the most part, kept it to at max two containers tall, so about 20 feet tall. And obviously containers are built to withstand high winds, if you can imagine, you know, how they're transported across sea and how they're kept in ports for long periods of time."
The return of cruise ships
After two cancelled cruise seasons in a row because of the pandemic, the Port of Saint John is looking forward to welcoming ships back this season.
The industry brings in about $68 million annually, said Natalie Allaby, of the Port of Saint John.
"There are so many stakeholders and so many businesses in the uptown, as well as through the Bay of Fundy region, that have really been hurting over the last two years because of not having this sector.
"I'm excited for the port, but I'm really excited for all those people that have just hung their hats on this sector and need it to come back to survive."
When people think of the cruise industry, they naturally think of the passengers, said Allaby.
"Sometimes the people that are often forgotten about are the crew," she said. "Oftentimes, these crews have been at sea for months and months on rotating contracts, and they just want to connect and talk to their friends and family back home from all over the world."
Allaby said port officials put in a "special request" on behalf of crew members to create a private lounge area exclusively for the crew that includes high-speed internet.
It will be constructed with two shipping containers on the bottom and one on top.
"And it's just going to be a really great space where they know they can go and feel comfortable that they're not going to be interrupted, because oftentimes cruise passengers will sometimes think that if a crew is in the city, that they can still be approached for questions or questions related to the ship. And when they're off the ship, they are off duty and they don't want to be bothered."