The recently formed Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) held its inaugural outreach events on July 23 and 24, to elicit opinions from visitors and Islanders alike on how to revitalize downtown Oak Bluffs. Members of the eight-person committee manned tables outside the post office and next to the town information booth both days, giving out surveys and listening to all comers. On Wednesday evening there was a public visioning meeting at the Oak Bluffs library and on Thursday morning, members of the business community gathered at Union Chapel to share their views. Both meetings were moderated by consultants from the Horsley Witten group.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Gail Barmakian, DSMPC member and Oak Bluffs selectman, said in a phone interview with The Times. “We were trying to get a wide cross-section of people and I think we were very successful at that. It didn’t matter if they were visitors, seasonal residents, or Islanders, people have a passion for this town. But you have to draw them out. You can’t just say ‘fill this out.’ You have to engage.”
Ms. Barmakian said an overriding theme was that cleaning and repairing downtown should be a top priority. “People were saying that we have to clean it up,” she said. “Clean and repair but not change the character of the town. We had to preserve the unique character of the town.”
“We dished out roughly 350 surveys during the day,” DSMPC member Brian Packish said in a phone interview with The Times. “So far we’ve gotten about 200 back between the website and the ones we handed out.” Mr. Packish, a landscaper and chairman of the planning board, said the public visioning meeting on Wednesday night exceeded his expectations. “The meeting room was packed,” he said. “People were excited. A lot of them stayed and talked in the parking lot after the meeting.”
Mr. Packish said signage, or “wayfaring” in urban planning parlance, was a much discussed topic. “There’s definitely a need for better wayfaring,” he said. “When you rely heavily on tourism, the tourists need to know where to locate the bathrooms and how far they are from the Campground, and what direction to go.” Mr. Packish said signs for pedestrians that give the walking time to destinations was a popular idea.
Ms. Barmakian agreed. “Signage from both ferry terminals is really lacking,” she said. “It also places a burden on the police because they have to spend so much time giving directions.”
Mr. Packish said a park and ride for employees in the downtown area was a popular solution for the summertime parking woes, and that the dingy downtown appearance was a recurring theme. “Overall, town cleanliness was definitely a big issue,” he said. “A lot of people feel there need to be more trash barrels and more pickups.”
Duncan Ross, DSMPC member and the de facto representative for the Friends of Oak Bluffs, also said the Wednesday night meeting was particularly productive. “It was good for the people on the committee because we weren’t in any of the working groups,” he said. “We just walked around and listened to the ideas.”
A former selectman and retired teacher, Mr. Ross said that one of the better ideas he heard was to create parking for downtown employees on the streets that border Waban Park. “I thought that was a brilliant idea,” he said. “It’s a simple solution to a problem that has persisted for a long time.”
In a phone interview with The Times, John Tiernan, co-owner of the Dockside Inn, said he pitched a similar idea at the Thursday morning meeting he attended with other town business owners. “I suggested wrapping Waban park with head-in parking, like we have at Ocean Park,” he said. “You could give employees hanging tags, they could walk into town and know they’re not going to get a ticket. You could have maybe 200 parking spots there. You’d have 20 disgruntled homeowners, but 12 of them rent their house out during the summer anyway.” Mr. Tiernan added that parking around Waban Park could also increase flow to Pay Beach and the Inkwell which in turn could also create business for new vendors.
Overall, Mr. Tiernan said he was encouraged by the Thursday gathering. “It was a great first meeting,” he said. “It was an eclectic crowd. which is representative of what Oak Bluffs is. I’m happy there were people like Peter Martell and Kerry Scott, along with some of the newer business owners like me. Peter doesn’t pull any punches. He’s a longtime steward of the town and he cares a lot about Oak Bluffs.”
Mr. Tiernan said that adding proper sidewalks and replacing the sagging, aging telephone poles with underground lines were some of the improvements that he hoped to see on Circuit Ave. extension. “One of my proposals has met a bit of resistance, but I think Circuit Ave. extension is perfect for cobblestones,” he said. “When you go to the North End in Boston or Portsmouth [New Hampshire] you see cobblestones, and you know you’re in a seaport. Edgartown does this, why can’t we? We can’t do the same old, same old. People joke about New Bedford but the downtown area is much better than Oak Bluffs, hands down, and they have much better signage.”
Mr. Tiernan said that as a hotelier, he pays 11.7 percent tax on every room charge and he questions how it’s spent. “Six percent of that tax goes directly to the town, yet we can’t clean up Circuit Ave. or fill potholes on Circuit Ave. extension,” he said. “I have no idea where that money goes. If the town can’t clean up the sidewalks on Circuit Ave., how about hiring a private contractor to power wash them? I’d pitch in for that.”
Mr. Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel, said he was less than enthused by the Thursday business owners meeting. “The dog and pony show [by Horsley Witten consultants] doesn’t mean a lot to me,” he said. “I don’t need to listen for 15 minutes about how great they are at making signs. Oak Bluffs has plenty of signs. My big thing is to improve the beaches. They’re a disgrace. I don’t know why they’re [town officials] dragging their heels. You can have all the signs you want, but when people get off the boat and look at our beaches, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
Mr. Packish had a different take on the consultants’ contribution. “They really did a good job: they went door to door to every business in town, and their study was pretty comprehensive,” he said. The firm, along with Mr. Packish and DSMPC member Erik Albert, owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn, also run the committee’s active social media program, including the website OBdowntown.com and a Facebook page that already has over 800 likes. Surveys can still be completed on the website, until August 8.
“We want to hear from all Islanders, not just Oak Bluffs,” Mr. Packish said. “We’re open to good ideas.”