Private Home Port purchase collapses
A wealthy Chilmark property owner and environmental activist this week withdrew from a deal to purchase the Home Port restaurant. Charles FitzGerald had planned to purchase the property and hold it for one year, in order to buy some time for a group of Chilmarkers working on a way to acquire the property for the town.
Mr. FitzGerald, a Maine businessman responsible for helping to preserve thousands of acres in that state, said he backed out of the deal to purchase the restaurant and property for $3.9 million, the same price at which it was offered to the town, after deciding that his personal financial risk in the deal appeared to be too great.
Mr. FitzGerald stepped forward after a Nov. 21 special town meeting at which Chilmark voters extensively debated and then rejected decisively a proposal that the town buy the property. Opinion was divided among those who favored a purchase as a way to maintain control of the picturesque port and those who said the purchase price was too high and the town had no use for it.
The Home Port. File photo by Susan Safford
It now appears likely that fans of the Home Port, a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, will get to enjoy at least one more summer season of lobster and fried seafood amid the hustle and bustle of the busy establishment overlooking Menemsha Creek.
In a telephone interview from his winter home in South Carolina Tuesday, Home Port owner Will Holtham confirmed that a purchase was off the table. Mr. Holtham said he still intended to sell the restaurant and property, but not before cranking up the Fryolators for one more summer season.
Mr. Holtham said he decided to reopen because he did not want to leave his employees in limbo. "I have already contacted people for next summer so we will be up and running as usual," said Mr. Holtham, who began working in the restaurant in 1967 and eventually purchased it.
Man with a vision
In a telephone conversation Wednesday from his Chilmark home, Mr. FitzGerald spoke enthusiastically about the visions that led him, somewhat impulsively, he admitted, to contact Deborah Hancock of Chilmark, owner of Hancock Real Estate and the property's broker, after learning that the town had turned down the Home Port purchase.
He envisioned the shorefront property serving as a safe and convenient launching place for canoeists and kayakers interested in exploring the beautiful backwaters of Menemsha Pond.
The restaurant building itself might have been divided, with a portion devoted to the natural history and ecology of the surrounding waters. Eventually, the property might be used in some way to help reinvigorate the fishing industry of the town, he said.
According to the outlines of the deal, as described by Mr. FitzGerald, he was to buy the Home Port for the same price it was offered to the town and hold it for one year. During that time, a committee of Chilmarkers would fundraise with the goal of defraying the cost before asking the town to reconsider the Home Port. That accomplished, he was to sell the property back to the town for what he had paid, plus his costs.
There was support, he said. Riggs Parker, a selectman and proponent of a town purchase, offered encouragement. Ms. Hancock said she would waive any real estate commission. Mr. Holtham agreed to help any way he could. Others agreed to help as well.
Mr. FitzGerald signed a purchase offer and put some money down. He located a chef in New York to run the restaurant this summer. But in the end, the prospect of putting $3.9 million into the deal, money he planned to raise by mortgaging property he owned, and then carrying it for a year was too daunting.
"I am loaded with ideas about what to do with it, and so are other people, and there are a lot of people around in the town who feel very strongly that this is an opportunity that should not be lost," he said. "But in the end it came down to the fact that I risked having to hold on to the property too long, if I could not get the town to buy it, and it would simply jeopardize my situation."
He said he would be willing to share the risk with like-minded benefactors, but was not in a position to go it alone. "I was doing it all with borrowed capital because I never have a lot of surpluses around," he said. "I have already invested in this land preserve in Maine and all these projects I am involved in, and I find there is never much to spare."
He added, "I just think there is a big public benefit to be gained, not just for Menemsha because I feel the boat launch should be for the whole Island."
Disappointment all around
Mr. Holtham said he is disappointed an opportunity to put the property in the town's hands fell through. "But it wasn't meant to be," he said. "We took it as far as we could, and he dropped out."
Mr. Holtham said he understood the circumstances that led Mr. FitzGerald to make his decision. Town sentiment for a purchase was lukewarm at best when it was first proposed, leaving open the possibility that even if a committee raised money to help defray the costs, the town might still have no interest, and interest rates were rising, he said. "So there were no guarantees for him," he said.
Mr. Holtham said that trying to make something happen with the town had been costly both in time and legal fees. He said he was very appreciative of the efforts of Mr. Parker and Ms. Hancock. "They are good citizens," said Mr. Holtham
Mr. Parker said he was disappointed for the town and the Holthams that the transaction did not work. He said the Holthams and Ms. Hancock had been exceedingly generous to Chilmark in their desire to see the town have the property.
"The town has spoken in town meeting and rejected the opportunity it was given to buy the Home Port, so now we have to wait and see what the future brings," Mr. Parker said. "It is still a very important piece of property in Menemsha. I hope that whatever happens is consistent with the best interests of the area and the town."
The Home Port was established in 1931. Mr. Holtham began working at the restaurant in 1967 and purchased it 10 years later from Chet and Esther Cummens, who had owned and run it since the late 1960s.
The popular Menemsha seafood establishment draws throngs in the summertime for the ocean-fresh entrees and first-class sunsets. Its "back-door dinner" service, once a well-kept secret, does a thriving take-out trade catering to those who want Home Port food without the frills.
During one of the Vineyard's frequent real estate booms in 1999, Mr. Holtham put the business on the market for one month with a $6.5 million asking price to see what would happen. Nothing did, and he stayed in the restaurant business.
With plans to re-list the property, owners Will Holtham and Madeline Moore approached Chilmark selectmen in August with an opportunity to purchase the choice piece of Menemsha real estate, which includes the restaurant building, a parking lot and land and a dock on Menemsha creek, well below the $5 million he planned to list it at on the open real estate market.
The reduced purchase price was offered with the stipulation that the town had to act quickly to express any interest.
The Chilmark selectmen responded by appointing five town residents to a special committee to help the town consider what uses might be made of the Home Port if voters decided to purchase the family eatery, which they did not at a Nov. 21 special town meeting.