An upgrade of the Number 1 wharf at Whanganui's port is the first visible sign of progress on the district council's plans for port development.

Concrete Structure began a $1.8 million contract to carry out the work in February.

The upgrade is part of council's plan to "future-proof" the facility which has been languishing and falling into disrepair. When it is completed the wharf will cater for heavy trucks, cranes and similar equipment.

Rowan McGregor, council's property manager, said the work was due to be finished in September.

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The existing rear timber sheathing wall was being replaced with a sheet piled wall for the first 150m of the wharf and a heavy-duty loading area was being built.

Mr McGregor said piles under the remaining 75m of the wharf would be upgraded and some of the decking removed to make the area safe. The contractor was working around the port's existing operations, he said.

A port business plan prepared for council said the port's potential as a servicing point for offshore mineral exploration was dependent on world economic conditions and resource consent requirements, but other opportunities were being explored.

The council, its holding company Whanganui District Council Holdings and iwi have been considering various options for the future of the port, taking account of business potential, the state of the infrastructure, freight potential and growth in recreational boating.

Closing the commercial port was one option, but council decided to make the commercial port more viable for future use, focus on more onshore-related business, and develop the recreational boating area.

A working group for recreational boat owners is working through a concept design for the staged development of the Wharf St boat ramp, including options for a user-pays system.

The group is looking at upgrading the ramp with finance from the council, sponsorship and ramp users.

Another key to maintaining navigable depths in the port is the acquisition of a refitted barge to be used for dredging.

That has cost $200,000, again financed through the harbour endowment fund.

Other planning includes an upgrade of the North Mole and repairing erosion-control structures on South Spit.