If the city of Belfast has accomplished anything in the past 20 years it has been to articulate its aspirations in the form of numerous master plans for the downtown and waterfront area. Last week, the City Council voted to seek bids for a new master plan centering on a waterfront walkway that has been in the planning stages for more than a year. We applaud the Council for taking the long view, but caution that, historically, the city has been much better at coming up with ideas than putting them into action.

The modern master plan arguably begins in 1991 with the Harbor Management Plan. At the time, Belfast was moving away from waterfront industry and into uncharted waters. The title of the report is telling. Though artists had come to Belfast for one reason or another since the 1970s, the notion of Belfast as a cultural destination had yet to fully take hold.

The biggest change on the horizon in 1991, of course, was the imminent arrival of MBNA, and the introduction of a large number of white-collar jobs to the area, but the drafters of the Harbor Management Plan didn’t know this. Consequently, they got the general trend right — a waterfront drifting toward recreational uses, potentially at odds with a strong sense of local identity in the working waterfront; the sense that locating a large hotel downtown might not be a good idea — but in other ways had no idea what lay ahead.

A passage from the section on office space (from a marketing study performed as part of the plan) reads, “The Maine Department of Labor data does not suggest that the Belfast area will likely experience growth in white collar jobs that will justify the need for the development of moderate to large amounts of office space in Belfast during the next five years.” This was four years before MBNA came to Belfast, bringing 1,500 office jobs to the area. And while it can be said that Belfast’s erstwhile fairy godmother built its own office space — alleviating the need for offices downtown — the city could just as easily have headed in a very different direction.

The 1994 Belfast Renaissance Plan absorbed many of the recommendations of the 1991 plan, but expanded beyond the waterfront to include the greater downtown area. The study was funded in part by the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad and an expansion of the excursion rail service figured prominently in the greater economic development scheme. By this time, the transformation Belfast was undergoing seemed to be better understood. The plan includes a reproduction of an article from USA Weekend in which Belfast is named as one of five “culturally cool towns” in the United States.

The Renaissance Plan was the last official “master plan.” A decade later, the city reviewed the plan’s 36 recommendations. Those that were completed had been done, for the most part, with money from MBNA. The following year saw a city-commissioned master plan-like study, titled “Creating Vibrancy in Belfast, Maine.” Early in the document, the consultants who drafted the report cautioned — while at the same time acknowledging that they might be shooting themselves in the foot — that too often communities pay high-priced consultants to write a “plan of action,” but lack the staff or resources to implement it.

The Vibrancy Report, as it is known, is among the loftier of the master plans, challenging the city to find and amplify its own “vibrancy,” evidence of which, the report said, may include, “more foot traffic, more parking spaces filled, increases in sales volume, and businesses able to stay open all year long.”

Several of the larger goals of the Vibrancy Report have been accomplished or are convincingly under way. Whether Belfast has achieved “vibrancy'” is less clear. The challenge of “connecting East and West” is ongoing, though the city has begun to make pedestrian improvements on the East Side. The coastal walkway — which promises more “connectivity” — has yet to break ground, but Belfast has socked away $450,000 for the project and made it a central feature of the proposed Downtown and Waterfront Master Plan. The creation of an events facility capable of holding 500-1,000 people has been, as advocates for such a venue are quick to point out, a recurring theme in several of the reports. And Belfast has been slow to market the “Belfast brand,” an idea that might be better left with the false economies that brought on the current recession.

We look forward to the proposals for the Downtown and Waterfront Master Plan with a mixture of ardor and skepticism — an attitude that may well be the elusive Belfast brand. But before the city accepts yet another master plan, there must be a real commitment to act on it. If past plans are any indication, it’s going to take money, and we may not have another MBNA to foot the bill.