“I have spent most of my life on the water,” says Doreen Kopacz (rhymes with “topaz”). She is harbormaster at the Seafood Industrial Park (SIP). Wearing many hats, Kopacz says, “I have a lot of paperwork but I spend 50 percent of my time outdoors.” Her office is at the end of Jefferson Avenue at the Small Boat Harbor.
SIP is a 30+-acre section of land, running from the end of Jefferson Avenue near King-Lincoln Park, to 12th Street. The City of Newport News owns the land and leases it to a variety of seafood-related industries. The largest business and biggest employer is Fairlead Boat Works. Benson Phillips (now gone) was the longest running tenant. “It lasted because it ‘evolved,’” says Kopacz. “Its business started as coal, then changed to building materials and finally to concrete.” The first tenant (1915) was Texas Oil Company.
Today there are a variety of businesses: Papco provides fuels for boats, and Chesapeake Bay Packing is the largest seafood processing plant — mostly flounder and scallops. Others include Old Point Packing and B&C Seafood. “Rents add up to a million dollars annually. The park is a great moneymaker for Newport News,” says Kopacz. The Park accounts for more than half of the value of seafood landed in the Port of Hampton Roads each year. That value can vary between $20M to $50M each year, depending on the location of the scallop biomass.
The City also collects property taxes and mooring fees. SIP consists of 39 acres, including navigable water. The city has built two new piers with an 18-foot channel depth. Tugboats, barges and large trawlers can be accommodated. There are approximately 85 boats employing 500 to 700 people, including fishing crews and employees in buildings. Companies represented in SIP include seafood processors, a fuel depot, a boat building and repair business, machine shops, a marine construction company and a barge company.
In May, Virginia Port Authority awarded a $506,508 grant to SIP to be used for upgrading safety equipment, replacing deteriorated wood structures and increasing the capacity in the park. Part of the grant will be used to refurbish heavy barge mooring , allowing larger vessels.
For Harbormaster Topacz it is vital that the park supports mariners and offers safety when needed. SIP can be a safe harbor when water conditions become rough.
The names on the buildings change and the facades age, but the harbor and SIP are as vital as ever. SIP has averaged in the top 10 nationally for value of seafood landed. More than 70 ocean-going trawlers and 20 inshore fishing vessels have landed seafood products in recent years. Vessel moorings are leased to capacity.
As port development administrator, Kopacz collects rent and acts as general overseer. She enforces the rules, major and minor. “I have a great relationship with all the tenants and boat operators,” says Kopacz. “I have their respect. Even though I am a blue-eyed blonde, they know I’m not a pushover.”
“A difficult aspect of this job is dealing with hurricanes, tides and wind,” says Kopacz. “Weather gives me a heartache. Tide levels, wind direction and water surges are always a concern.” Her office flooded during Hurricane Isabel.
Kopacz grew up on Willoughby Spit and has always enjoyed swimming and fishing. She was educated at Virginia Wesleyan. While in school she took a variety of part-time jobs, including driving a dump truck, delivering cinder blocks and wrapping meat at Farm Fresh. Kopacz’s degree is in literature and linguistics. She also has an associate degree from Thomas Nelson Community College. She was an SOL tutor and a grant writer for schools in Norfolk. “Not my cup of tea,” she says. She earned her captain’s license and spent 35 years as captain of a party boat.
In her spare time, Kopacz enjoys working with wood. She has built a shed, porch and bench. “My next project is a gazebo for my back yard,” she says. “I like to read ‘do-it-yourself’ books.” She likes to fish, even though she doesn’t really like seafood.
Kopacz loves animals. She has a dog and five cats. Most are rescues. “There are a lot of cats in the park because of the seafood,” she says. She rescued a kitten clinging to a pylon in the water and named him “Splash.”
As for retirement, Kopacz says she would like to try fresh-water fishing. “I’ve always lived near water,” she says, “but I would like to try living on a lake.” She has a place in South Carolina in mind.
TO THE POINT:
Seafood Industrial Park/Small Boat Harbor
Address: 34 Jefferson Ave., Newport News VA 23607
Contact: Doreen Kopacz, port development administrator, certified port facility security officer and harbormaster