Oak Bluffs residents share their vision for the future of the town

Gingerbread cottages are a popular attraction, in the Campground and scattered around Oak Bluffs.
File photo by Ezra Newick

Gingerbread cottages are a popular attraction, in the Campground and scattered around Oak Bluffs.

Oak Bluffs is on the upswing as it moves into 2014. Finances are in the black. Order has been restored to the books. Major grants have been won. Major improvements are in motion.

In 2013, selectmen tackled many issues. Some they postponed to the new year. Work remains to do on hot-topic issues that included the home business exemption, ownership of East Chop bluff, food carts, and the “minimum maintenance” requirement for Circuit Avenue.

Town leaders say they are optimistic. Their attitude suggests that there are many problems that can be solved and opportunities that can be seized.

“The first thing you need to do is to come up with a vision for your town.” That was the parting advice state Department of Housing and Community Development Emmy Hahn gave at a recent standing room only meeting where town leaders and concerned citizens heard recommendations from town planning experts on how to revitalize the drooping downtown. The word “vision” was used repeatedly.

How will the people of Oak Bluffs collectively share ideas and somehow come to a consensus on their future?

The Times recently asked a cross section of Oak Bluffs citizens to respond to an email with their “vision” for the Oak Bluffs of the future. Their answers follow.

Shelley Christiansen

I get amused when people from other Vineyard towns purse their lips and say things like, “We certainly don’t want to become another Oak Bluffs.” It is a badge of honor, to my way of thinking. My vision of Oak Bluffs: Relaxed and free-spirited. Prone to whimsy. A mish-mosh of personal backgrounds, lifestyles, generations, and tax brackets.

I want a two-headed town — one head that celebrates its legacy as the Island’s birthplace as a summer resort, even as we really, really welcome the end of August every year, and one head that upholds the interests of the year-round community, first and foremost. This is not a theme park; it’s our home.

Call me a Pollyanna, but this town already has a lot going for this vision: Our terrific parks, from Ocean Park to dog park. Bike paths, harborfront and family-friendly beaches. Festivals and fireworks. Our plucky little Arts District. The vital and vibrant Council on Aging. The unique treasure of our Victorian seaside streetscapes. The year-round hum of our “Main Street U.S.A.,” where the family-owned grocery, the family-owned hardware store and a treasured (and affordable) home-style restaurant lie within baby steps of each other. The endless meet-and-greet at Post Office Square. Last and arguably least, we’ve got our nighttime honky tonks, keeping the downtown welcome lights burning after dark. (Say, is that one of those pursed-lipped out-of-towners on the far barstool?)

Oak Bluffs certainly has stuff to work on — most embarrassingly, the commercial buildings smack in the heart of town, begging for facelifts. I realize that if the solution were simple, it would have been applied a long time ago. Still, I yearn for at least one movie theatre to be rehabbed and revived. Also on my wish list: A fish market (again). One less tee-shirt emporium. A full-blown visitors center, proudly embellished with historic exhibits. One year-round hotel with 21st-century amenities, the missing piece in our otherwise worthy array of lodgings. My hopes for the disappearance of the shark tournament have already been realized, thank you.

Ms. Christiansen is a freelance writer, a regular essayist for local NPR station WCAI, and real estate broker. She serves on the Cottage City historic district commission and the Copeland district committee.

Kathy Burton

My visionary wish list for the town of Oak Bluffs includes but is not limited to the following:

- Financial health, stability and positive economic growth.

- Attention to town infrastructure. I am “proud to be from O.B.” I’d like our town buildings and facilities (inside and outside), infrastructure, beaches, and parks to reflect that pride. We are on our way to many improvements and need also to focus on cleanliness and maintenance of that infrastructure.

- Vibrant, successful, and aesthetically pleasing business districts. In addition to some historic renovation downtown, it would be really great to see attractive off-season windows on seasonally closed businesses.

- Beautification and renovation of our waterfront to include the rebuilt sea wall, the boardwalk between the steamship dock and harbor, the universal access fishing pier integrated with the clay and brick bathroom and someday please, new railings along the waterfront.

- Tasteful, discreet “way finding” signage with a consistent design honoring our rich Victorian seaside heritage. Suggestions include a kiosk/map on the plaza outside the clay and brick bathroom to direct folks getting off the steamship ferries to the information booth, the center of town, beaches, and the harbor. I would suggest the same or similar at the two distinct exit points for the day ferries on the harbor.

- A safe and active pedestrian, bicycle, and recreational community with special focus being given to our children as they move to and from our fabulous schools.

- We currently have off-site parking at the parish hall. We need a “historic looking” shuttle/trolley and an advertising campaign to get that rolling. We can expand to an additional location once the first site takes off.

- I’d love to see more family-friendly activities scheduled throughout the year on weekends. To our current events, it would be fun to add a chowder contest, lobster roll contest, and/or other events. I’m sure there are pros and cons to the concept of closing Circuit Ave, but I’d like to see more of that on summer weekends.

- Lastly, I celebrate a continued vision of our diverse talented year-round and seasonal population who have much to offer and much to say about our collective vision for the town that we all love.

Ms. Burton is in her second term on the board of selectmen. She has a professional background in technology and is a real estate executive.

Renee Balter

My vision for Oak Bluffs would have to start with what I think we already have.

For me, Oak Bluffs is a rare one-of-a-kind gem of a town that was shaped by people with vision, determination, and a whole lot of passion that has attracted a very unusual mix of characters with vision, determination, and a whole lot of passion.

It is a spectacular summer Victorian seaside resort that welcomes diversity and fun. It is a year-round community that thrives on traditions, strong opinions, antagonism, debate, cooperation, and hope. Always hope.

The landscape manages to support this unusual mix with a network of wonderful parks, playgrounds, beaches, Victorian and gingerbread cottages, as well as traditional and modern housing, historic treasures that include the Flying Horses, the Tabernacle, Union Chapel, the Ocean Park bandstand, the Island’s largest historic district (400-plus properties) a vibrant small business district that clings to a central downtown location, including the P.O., a small (SUPER) supermarket and many vital businesses that bring folks together throughout the year. It has a very active harbor that welcomes thousands of seasonal visitors and ferries that connect to seven major ports, a new fishing pier, the best fireworks in the world, the Holy Ghost Feast, Illumination Night, many churches, a great library, the regional high school, the YMCA, the Island hospital, Community Services — I could go on and on and on.

What we need for the future is to be able to preserve and improve what we already have without destroying our authentic and genuine town.

My wish is for strong leadership that will acknowledge and support this vision.

Ms. Balter is the former executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association and is active in town affairs.

Christine Todd

Joining the Oak Bluffs Association as executive director in the summer of 2013 ignited a passion in me for a town that I am honored to call my home. The core of our community is based on a diverse population with a deep commitment to preserving the historical elements that make Oak Bluffs unique and an openness to continually seeking ways to improve upon what we have.

The vision I have for our town is expansive and ever-growing, but I will highlight a few goals to get working on in 2014:

Let’s begin with greater community involvement in any decision making that will steer the direction of our town. Our Master Plan is in need of updating and I would like to see record turnouts from our citizens to participate in this process. The continual open and public expression of opinions and ideas from all reaches of our community is imperative toward setting the wheels in motion toward a collective goal.

We hope to be more pedestrian-friendly whether it be through improvements in signage, walkways, bike paths, resting areas with shade and shelter, minimized litter or improved parking, maintenance, and management of existing structures. A keen eye must always be kept on aesthetic appeal of any changes that are made. By tapping into the experience of other state and local officials we can learn from their experiences as we create a revitalization plan for our downtown.

I feel it is our duty to support the growth of home businesses and allow for their expansion by creating an industrial zone to accommodate their need for equipment or other storage.

There has got to be a way to resurrect one of the movie theaters in town. I have heard a loud community outcry for this, and that collective voice must be acknowledged and satisfied.

Our budget may not support all of the improvements we would like to see as a town. I encourage a ground-swelling of volunteerism from all sectors of our community to accomplish what may otherwise be fiscally impossible.

We have a gem in our midst. We have a unique Victorian seaside town that we call home. Let us take our gem, polish it and make it shine.

Ms. Todd is executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association and a Dukes County commissioner.

Bill Coggins

I was born and raised on the Vineyard, and my parents were the owners of the Ben Franklin Five and Ten store on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. With this background, I have a long-spanning perspective of local business, which brings about my vision of what Circuit Avenue could become in the near future.

Taking an aerial look at Oak Bluffs, there are three main sections of the town where tourists congregate. On one side there is the waterfront area with its gorgeous town beach and Ocean Park. On the other side there is the Campground with its beautiful and well-maintained cottages. Bisecting the two, lies what can become the third jewel in the crown of Oak Bluffs: Circuit Avenue.

I visualize Circuit Ave as a vibrant pedestrian-friendly street where buildings, both new and old capture the charm of yesteryear through architecture and color. Also, I see second and third story apartments above these buildings that will bring about a sense of community within the town. This also responds to the critical shortage of affordable housing. This would result in an exciting new mix of family-friendly businesses.

I see a new era of cooperation between town leaders, property owners, and businesspeople, where ideas can come together to create a refreshing synergy benefiting Circuit Ave. in the very near future.

I know that the people of Oak Bluffs and the Island are quite capable of this. I visualize Circuit Ave taking its rightful place as the crown jewel of town centers on the Vineyard.

Mr. Coggins is a businessman and owner of Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium on Circuit Avenue.