Bowen’s Wharf Company has announced that Bartlett S. Dunbar will be retiring this fall, after 54 years of unwavering dedication and visionary leadership and that Newport’s current city manager Joseph Nicholson will take over as the new CEO, stepping into the position effective October 15, 2023. Dunbar will remain president and chairman of the board of directors and transition from his role through the end of 2024.
Dunbar has been the guiding force behind the wharf since August 1969, after purchasing the parcels of land and several commercial buildings that had been occupied by Bowen’s Coal & Oil Company since 1863, and established Bowen’s Wharf Company, Inc. From there, his vision slowly came to life, and the property transformed from a dilapidated commercial wharf in an overlooked part of downtown Newport to the beloved and iconic waterfront destination that it is today, with over a million annual visitors and over 30 successful retail stores, restaurants, offices, and tour operators as tenants.
“When the Navy brought me here in 1967, the waterfront was somewhat of a hidden asset, full of run-down warehouses and oil tanks,” said Dunbar. “We wanted to revive and celebrate the historic seaport of the past and create a place that allowed business to thrive as well as restore public access to the harbor. In doing so, Bowen’s Wharf became one of the first urban waterfront developments of its kind on the East Coast.”
During his tenure, the wharf has flourished as a bustling commercial hub of marine activity, boutique shopping, unique dining experiences and signature events. His passion for preserving the historic charm of the area while embracing modern amenities has garnered widespread recognition and respect, enriching the Newport experience for generations. Not only has it become a local economic driver but also a cherished part of the community, with the annual Oyster & Chowder Festival, Seafood Festival and Christmas Tree Lighting cementing the wharf as a vibrant gathering place for people from all walks of life.
Dunbar helped establish Christmas in Newport, hosting the first tree lighting event on Bowen’s Wharf in 1970 and was instrumental in collaborating with the city on early development initiatives following the opening of the Claiborne Pell Bridge, serving on the city’s inaugural Comprehensive Planning Committee, as well as on the Waterfront Commission and the Newport Redevelopment Agency (which opened the city’s Maritime Center in the old Amory building in 2010). In 2020, he worked with Charles Roberts of Rhode Island Slave History Medallions to install the first medallion in Newport on the wharf’s historic ship chandlery building, one of property’s oldest structures dating back to the 18th century.
Because of Dunbar’s commitment to the city’s maritime heritage and his longstanding personal regard for sail training and teaching, his involvement in the community extends well beyond his business interests at the wharf – co-founding the American Sail Training Association (now Tall Ships America) along with the late Barkley Warburton in 1972, and later establishing SSV Oliver Hazard Perry as Rhode Island’s official flagship and sailing education vessel in 2008 (which had morphed from Tall Ships Newport, the host of several festivals and events from the late 1970s to early 2000s). He also co-founded Sail Newport in 1983 with Paul Butrose and Dr. Robin Wallace, right after the New York Yacht Club had lost the America’s Cup, to encourage public access to sailing.
As Dunbar transitions into retirement, he leaves behind a legacy of achievements and strong foundation for the future. The board of directors initiated a comprehensive search for his successor who could build upon the traditions and values that Dunbar has instilled, appointing Joseph Nicholson as CEO, who is set to replace Dunbar following his departure from the city later this month.
“Steering Bowen’s Wharf for more than five decades has been an incredible privilege,” said Dunbar. “I am deeply grateful for the support of the community, all our tenants and staff,
and am immensely proud of what we have accomplished together. I am excited to see the continued success with Joe Nicholson at the helm. I felt that the person taking over needed to be a Newporter who is passionate about maintaining the integrity of the historic waterfront, and someone who appreciates and protects the unique experience that we offer to both locals and visitors alike. I’ve worked closely with Joe over the 37 years that he has served the city and am confident in his leadership ability and dedication to upholding the spirit of Bowen’s Wharf.”
Nicholson brings a wealth of community experience and fresh perspectives to the company, with a background in law and operational management. “Bowen’s Wharf provides a great opportunity to continue to be an active part of the Newport community while at the same time working to perpetuate what Bart Dunbar has worked so hard to achieve,” he said. “Bowen’s Wharf is indeed the anchor of Newport, and I am quite privileged to be part of its evolving history. The respect for Newport’s unique maritime heritage and its innovative approach to business is what makes it truly special.”
Dunbar’s retirement marks the end of an era, but the community extends its heartfelt gratitude for his remarkable contributions over the years. The company’s commitment to innovation while honoring its rich history remains as strong as ever and it looks forward to an exciting new chapter under Nicholson, who will continue to elevate Bowen’s Wharf as a premier destination and cherished landmark for years to come.
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