Oak Bluffs selectmen seek funding for downtown improvements

Tourists stroll by a now shuttered Seasons Restaurant. Once a fixture on Circuit Avenue, the restaurant is for sale. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs selectmen, in a public hearing Tuesday, discussed revisions to the town’s Program Income Plan [PIP], a blueprint for spending grant funds. Selectmen, with guidance from their grant planner, think the funds may be used to revitalize Circuit Avenue and the surrounding business district.

The PIP will be submitted next week to the state Department of Housing and Community Development [DHCD], to obtain funds from a Community Development Block Grant [CDBG], a federally funded program designed to help small cities and towns meet their community development needs.

Historically, Oak Bluffs has directed these funds exclusively to housing rehabilitation and child care subsidies. However, grant administrator Alice Boyd told the selectmen that the money might be used more liberally, and suggested revising the PIP to include other permitted DHCD uses, namely, improving downtown under the “revitalizing slums or blight,” proviso.

“We’re doing some forward thinking and allowing the selectmen to use the money for any activity DHCD allows,” said Ms. Boyd. “If you wanted to use it for downtown revitalization, you could use it for that. The funds can go to things like signs and facades, streets and sidewalks, infrastructure improvements, street lighting, and landscaping.”

There is $174,000 in the PIP. The income comes from the repayment of loans from the housing rehabilitation program. Traditionally people do not repay the loan, it is forgiven one 15th each year over 15 years. If someone sells the home after five years, the town receives two thirds of the loan back.

“You can use part of the $174,000, all of it, or none of it,” Ms. Boyd said. “My instinct is that’s what you use to get started. With grants to be competitive and to get funding, you have to have all the planning done in advance.”

All in the definition

The term “slums or blight” did not sit well with selectman Gail Barmakian. “I really don’t consider our downtown to be slums or blight,” she said. “To me, that’s more for big cities. I don’t consider our downtown near that bad.”

“It is a very unfortunate term,” said Ms. Boyd. “No community I’ve ever worked with wants to say their downtown is slums or blight. It doesn’t truly describe your downtown. What you do have is areas of spot blight. You have some buildings that have significant deferred maintenance. I’ve been up and down [Circuit Ave.] 30 times in the past month. There are definitely buildings that are in tough shape. Those are the buildings that make you eligible. You’re not saying your entire downtown is slums and blighted. It’s a very unfortunate title, but it’s the key to opening up the money.”

Selectman Greg Coogan, expressing concern that housing rehab and child care subsidy programs would be compromised, asked, “Are any children likely to be left out of this?”

“Absolutely not.” Ms. Boyd said. “We just received a new grant of $880,000,” referring to a grant that was awarded in August, $150,000 of which was designated for child care subsidies and the remainder for housing rehabilitation.

Ms. Boyd told the selectmen that Emmy Hahn of the DHCD, who toured downtown with local officials and business owners on September 30, had begun to organize a group of experts in town revitalization from across the state. That group will come to Oak Bluffs for the cost of lunch and a ferry ticket, sometime in the first week of December. This peer-to-peer interaction allows DHCD to spend the money for a paid expert to attend as well.

Looking ahead, Ms. Boyd said that while building owners cannot be made to make improvements, community beautification initiatives have a way of catching on.

“What traditionally happens in other towns that go through this process is that one particular building will take part in the program and get a new sign and put new windows in and do a nice job and then someone else starts and it really tends to take off in the whole neighborhood, and eventually, quite frankly, the building that’s blighted frequently gets sold or the owner does the necessary work. There can be grant incentives for some of these building owners — a forgivable loan or some funding to help them make these changes.”

“I think this is no-brainer,” said selectman Michael Santoro. “This is a major first step in what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think this is a big check mark on our strategic plan for revitalizing the downtown area.”

Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association, supported Ms. Boyd’s recommendation. “Our board members have discussed this at length, and we’re in favor of this effort, not necessarily the wording, but whatever it takes to get this revitalization under way, we’re in favor of it,” she said.

The PIP revision was unanimously approved.

MV ACE in the hole

Citing a near doubling of students since its inception in 2008 and dwindling resources to handle the demand, Sam Hart and Lynn Ditchfield from the Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) asked the selectmen for financial support of the Island-wide program. ACE MV offers more than 100 classes and also hosts community forums, performances, and cultural events focusing on the arts. Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting was the first of the six town selectmen meetings the ACE MV representatives plan to attend to request public funding assistance. Although they cited the adult learning center on Nantucket, which is fully funded by the town of Nantucket, as precedent, Mr. Vail and Ms. Barmakian thought the selectmen would be on shaky legal ground appropriating town money to a nonprofit organization. Mr. Vail also noted that there were no funds available for fiscal 2014, so any discussion would have to be about a possible contribution in FY 2015.

“Without town funding, we can’t keep going,” said Ms. Ditchfield.

Ms. Barmakian, praising the work of ACE MV, clarified the difference between public funding and town funding and suggested ACE MV might obtain the former by partnering with a public school that can include them in their budget. Ms. Ditchfield had not considered the tactic and agreed to pursue it.

ACE MV enrolled 1,055 students in 2012. This spring, ACE MV was named an Outstanding Community Arts Education Collaborative by Arts/ Learning, a state organization that recognizes individuals, organizations, institutions, and businesses that exemplify excellence in arts education.

Downtown duckpins

Local businessman/architect Sam Dunn presented preliminary plans for a two-story bowling alley/bar/restaurant on Uncas Avenue, across the street from A Gallery. Mr. Dunn said the venue would be “family oriented,” open year-round, and would also have a game room for children. He said the exterior walls would have photographs done by local artists and/or photographs of old Oak Bluffs. Mr. Dunn said the Historic Commission was “very excited” about the idea.

Parking issues, the proximity to residential district and hours of operation were all areas of concern for Ms. Barmakian, who felt the venue looked more like a sports bar than a family operation.

“We have a very long way to go here,” said Mr. Dunn. “This is a preliminary plan. We have to go before many boards. All these issues will be addressed as we go along. I just wanted to let you know that this is percolating.”

Mr. Dunn said the primary reason for his presentation was to apply for the one remaining year-round liquor permit in Oak Bluffs, without which the project would not attract investors. Mr. Vail told him that there is more than one license available. The majority of the selectmen present (selectman Kathy Burton was absent) said more time and planning needed to be done before they could vote on the license, and that it was also in Mr. Dunn’s best interest to wait and come back with more a more specific plan.

“That building has been empty and an eyesore for so long, whatever it takes to put something positive in there, for the district and the neighborhood, I’m all for it.” said Christine Todd, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association. Mr. Dunn’s exemplary work on the Tisbury Marketplace was also noted. Ms. Barmakian asked Mr. Dunn whether, if the project fell through, he would consider building affordable housing on the site.

“You can’t put a septic system in there and there’s no sewer, so we’re on composting toilets, there’s a lot of issues here that would be greatly magnified in a housing project,” he said.

In other business, the selectmen unanimously agreed to ask voters to postpone the property maintenance by-law, which addresses minimum property maintenance standards in the business district, at the November 12 special town meeting. The action will allow the selectmen more time to refine the policy and “to develop strategies for moving this forward in a positive way for the town,” according to town administrator Robert Whritenour.

The selectmen also approved opening dates for shellfishing in Oak Bluffs Harbor — November 23 for recreational permit holders, November 25 for commercial permit holders.