In the summer of 2004, two teams of Air Force reservists traveled from their home base, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Aquinnah to begin erecting the steel frame for a new community center building for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.
They were followed by members of the 908th civil engineering squadron, part of the Air Lift Wing based in Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. In all, over six weeks, three squadrons of approximately 20 reservists in civil engineering groups worked on the project.
Six years later, the 6,200-square-foot structure, erected at taxpayer expense, that was to include a gymnasium, kitchen facilities, and meeting space remains unfinished, despite an agreement under which the tribe was to complete the remaining 20 percent of the project.
The structure was open to the weather for several years. A recent observer found that door and window openings are now boarded up. The exterior synthetic weather barrier is tattered and sagging in places, missing in others. Exterior wood appears weather-damaged.
Tribal officials provided no explanation of why the tribe has been unable or unwilling to finish a building intended to benefit tribe members and the wider community.
“Thank you for your inquiry about the community center project, however, we have no update to provide at this time,” tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop wrote in an August 18 e-mail reply to an interview request.
An e-mailed question to tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais on Tuesday got a reply that said she was “out of the office,” and referred questions to Mr. Vanderhoop, or tribal council vice-chairman Richard Randolph. Reached by phone, Mr. Randolph declined to speak for the tribe. “Our process is, all things related to responses to newspapers have to go through them (Ms. Andrews-Maltais or Mr. Vanderhoop),” he said. “It’s basically going to be a no-comment from me.”
The training project was part of the Air Reserve Command Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program. IRT is designed to allow the military to assist local communities and receive valuable hands-on experience.
Under the original agreement, the reserve units were to travel to the Island, provide labor and tools to complete the exterior structure of the pre-engineered building, as well as plumbing, heating, and electrical work. The tribe was to provide the concrete slab foundation, building materials, and complete the remaining finish work once the military units departed.
At the time of construction, the Air Force said it was not at liberty to provide information about the cost of the project. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a $500,000 grant. The Bureau of Indian Affairs provided another $200,000 for road work.
The project remained off the radar screen until November 2007, when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) held a formal review of the project — erected without going through the usual permitting process with any town, regional, or state authorities — in the aftermath of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the tribe is subject to local zoning procedures.
After meeting with the commissioners, associate planner Durwood Vanderhoop said the tribe hoped to complete the project by the fall of 2008. Mr. Vanderhoop estimated it would take $500,000 to $600,000 to complete the building that he estimated was 80 percent complete.
“We see it as a place that all of our people can gather, a central place of Wampanoag culture — a system that is constantly under stress,” Mr. Vanderhoop told the MVC members.
Mr. Vanderhoop also noted the building’s deteriorating condition, in particular areas where some moisture barrier wrapping had ripped away in the years since the initial construction.
“It’s not a great loss necessarily, but it has to be addressed before the onset of winter,” Mr. Vanderhoop told the MVC.
The Times attempted to speak to tribe officials about the lack of progress and why members of the tribe had not completed the project.
Four members of the elected tribal council contacted by The Times either did not return phone messages or declined to comment.
“I am not the chairperson and I’m not the tribal administrator,” Eleanor Hebert, tribal council member, said. “Everything has to go through them, that’s what they tell us.”
But not everyone was silent. One member of the Wampanoag Tribe who did speak said the unfinished community center represents a lost opportunity.
“I think it’s about time,” said tribal elder Gladys Widdiss, one of the leaders of the effort to secure federal recognition. “We’ve been a long time deciding what we’re going to do. The opportunity is here. It should have been taken notice of long ago. It was our opportunity to step up and do something. Why they didn’t do it, I don’t know.
“They haven’t made up their mind. They forgot that time marches on, it doesn’t wait for anybody. I don’t know whether its lack of interest, or just not understanding.”
Berta Welch, a business owner active in the Wampanoag community, said those tribe members unhappy with the unfinished project should take some responsibility.
“If someone wants to come up with some money,” Ms. Welch said. “Do what the YMCA did. Do some real labor. Put your money where your mouth is, and help out. We’re too used to ‘let the tourists do it, let the state do it, let somebody else do it.’ People need to get out there and give a hand, and stop being so critical.”