A group of investors is trying to come up with enough capital to purchase four parcels, including the one where The Martha’s Vineyard Times is located, on the Vineyard Haven waterfront.
The Beach Road properties — 30, 34, 42, and 46 — are owned by the DeSorcy family. That family has offered the parcels up for sale at various times, but what makes this time different is that they’re actually giving the private group time to raise the $8 million asking price before putting the potentially valuable parcels on the market.
“We’ve expressed interest in the past, and they’ve given us a reasonable amount of time before it’s put on the open market,” said Nat Benjamin, a partner in Gannon & Benjamin Railway Co., the wooden boat building and restoration company that occupies part of the property.
Benjamin has assembled a committee, chaired by John McDonald, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum board, and a partner with Beacon Hill Capital. “Our main interest is to preserve this working waterfront — what we do here with building and restoring wooden boats,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said an appraisal of the property should be completed by the end of the week.
Reached by phone, Donald “Leo” DeSorcy confirmed that his family is giving Benjamin time to purchase the properties. He declined to answer specific questions. “That’s a private thing between my family and [Benjamin],” he said when asked if there’s a deadline.
On Tuesday night, the Permanent Endowment accepted the project, and will act as the fiscal sponsor, he said. That’s attractive to investors, because the money will go through a nonprofit, he said.
“Our board is very enthusiastic about working with this group and keeping the working waterfront in Vineyard Haven,” Emily Bramhall, executive director of the Permanent Endowment, told The Times. By being the fiscal sponsor, the group doesn’t have to jump through the hoops of becoming its own nonprofit, she said. The Permanent Endowment takes in the donations and makes sure that the group carries out its mission in perpetuity, she said.
The purchase of the Beach Road properties works with the endowment’s overall mission of preserving the quality of life of the Vineyard, and there is even a specific fund, the Harriet N. Goldberg fund, that is geared toward maritime endeavors, she said.
The Permanent Endowment has served as the fiscal sponsor for things like the move of the Gay Head Lighthouse and tick-borne illness programs, Bramhall said.
Along with The Times and Gannon & Benjamin, the nearly 2 acres of land houses art galleries, some apartments, and a former paint store with the DeSorcy name painted on the side facing the harbor.
The plan is to renovate the buildings, welcome the tenants to remain, and, Benjamin said, to renovate the former paint store to make it a useful contributor as part of the mixed use of the property. The idea is to encourage businesses who craft things by hand, he said.
Benjamin also emphasized the educational aspect of the property, where internships and apprenticeships will continue in the boatbuilding industry. He said the goal is also to open up more waterfront access to the public.
“We’re very intent on acquiring,” Benjamin said. “We want to keep tenants and improve the buildings.”
Town records show the buildings and lots are assessed at $4.5 million.
“We’ve got a solid committee of interested, active, bright individuals adding lots to the conversation,” Benjamin said. “We’re enthusiastic we’ll pull it off.”
Town sees possibilities in purchase
Anyone who has seen Beach Road in a storm knows that flooding and storm surge are a huge concern. The town received a state grant called the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant, and will use those funds to hire a consultant to look at the town’s vulnerabilities to sea-level rise, Cheryl Doble, chairman of the town’s planning board, told The Times.
“It really is going to be a focus that looks at flooding, sea-level rise, and storm surges we’ve had,” Doble said.
The DeSorcy property and the other properties on Beach Road will play a big role in that study.
Benjamin said he’s been in contact with town officials about the waterfront, and understands that there is some need to consider sea-level rise, though he said he doesn’t see putting buildings up on stilts as something that’s needed for buildings there at this time. He’s hoping to preserve the character of the waterfront, he said.
The area is zoned waterside management and commercial waterfront. The waterside management area is the closest to the shoreline. There is also a waterfront/commercial area that requires marine uses.
This year, the planning board is looking at zoning in that area to see what tweaks might be made, Doble said. Any changes would be done in discussions with stakeholders, and would ultimately require a town meeting vote, she said.
“How the zoning might change and how we might think differently, I can’t say. It will involve landowners down there. What do they see as their needs?” Doble said. “What are the community’s desires? We haven’t been able to have in-depth conversations recently with the land owners.”
Doble is excited at the possibilities for collaboration that new ownership would bring. “There’s real opportunity to look at this right now,” she said. “I’m excited about this because it’s something I think is critical to think about at this time. We’re hoping for some active participation on the part of the town — people who know this place well and contribute to the process.”
Benjamin shares her enthusiasm. “I’m confident we’ll work well together,” he said.
Selectman Melinda Loberg has talked about the possibilities all along the waterfront, and even consulted informally in the past with a planner about those possibilities. “I certainly think the harbor area is ripe for change,” Loberg told The Times. Though the town hasn’t been consulted on specific plans that might come from a new ownership group, Loberg said, “I look forward to hearing what the [new] owners think.”
Selectmen chairman Tristan Israel said he’s heard about the efforts by Benjamin and others to purchase the property. “If what I’m hearing is correct, I would support it,” he said.