By Geoghan Coogan
Ten years ago I started a term as a Tisbury selectmen. I was 32 at the time, had a young family of my own, and envisioned a substantial career as a member of the select board. As my term wound down, I decided I could not continue serving. My family was a factor, but the other driving force was the simple fact that it felt impossible to get anything done in this town.
In 2010 we moved the Town Hall Annex employees to trailers up near the landfill. I vividly remember promising those employees that they would only be there for a few years at the longest, until we had plans for a new town hall. A decade later, those employees are more comfortable in the trailers than the employees in the ancient Katharine Cornell Theater, and there has been zero discussion about a new town hall. In 2012, the town struck down the Connector Road concept. Islanders Talk on Facebook is ablaze all summer long about how bad the traffic is in Tisbury from Cronig’s down to the Steamship. Why can’t we fix it?
Now we have this debacle with the Tisbury School. This should be the tipping point for this town. Two of my own children will now spend the rest of their elementary school experience in trailers. Why does this town keep shooting itself in the foot? Two reasons. One, the common refrain that no change is good in Tisbury. We’re a “sleepy,” “working harborfront” town, and we should leave it the way it is. Two, our taxes keep going up, so every project that comes across the town’s table is just going to raise our taxes more, so forget it.
These two reasons are linked. Residents are right to fear tax increases. We do not depend on a large tax base, and because our town refuses to wake up to what we actually are, we lose opportunities to generate the kind of local revenues that could prevent those tax hikes. We are not a working harborfront town. Our harbor consists of many businesses which are profitable because they provide goods and services to the tourist economy. On one hand, we promote and support these operations as vital to our town’s economy, but then we restrict any additional development along our harbor under the premise we are a “working harborfront.” This town cannot continue to believe we pull the shades down at 4 pm and turn in for the night. Our industry is tourism.
Oak Bluffs and Edgartown have embraced their identities as port communities that thrive off the tourism industry. Edgartown isn’t pretending to be a whaling community, and Tisbury should stop pretending that we’re a sleepy working harborfront. When tourists arrive on the Island and immediately leave this town to enjoy the island’s other towns, we have failed. When we don’t accept what we are, we don’t advance, and our taxes go up.
We debated beer and wine in restaurants years ago. That decision has not had any negative impact on our town. Recreational marijuana stores are about to open here, yet you can’t go to a store and buy a bottle of wine. The old Bowl & Board building, with a nice restaurant and bar, maybe some outside tables, would be a central attraction, yet it sits empty year after year.
If we stopped pretending we’re a sleepy town, and embraced our identity as a tourist destination, the town would finally start seeing the funds needed to fix our municipal buildings. After all, it’s not just the school. Our police department is located in the most congested area of town, in a substandard building. We tore down our old fire station, and we’re renting parking spaces for a pittance, most of which sit empty on a daily basis. The Santander building hasn’t sold, probably in part because the town, and now the MVC, is mandating red roof shingles. Really? Why not move past the shingles and focus on putting some of these properties back on the tax rolls? This would not only increase tax revenue, but bring in more development and tourism, which increase local revenues.
We will have a special town meeting in September to vote to authorize $1.5 million to house our students in trailers, for what could be a few years, at a minimum. We spent $875,000 on a feasibility study to determine options for a new or renovated school just a few years ago. The work has been done. The money has been spent. We can’t fix the past, and it does no good to point fingers and cast blame. We can’t solely rely on those who volunteer their time on various town boards, or even those who work for the town. The leaders in this town, and those employed to manage this town, need to start making progress. If the people who live and enjoy this town want to see this town progress, we need to speak up and be ready to help however we can. Right now, we have one opportunity. We need to pull out those $875,000 plans and make a decision. And once that’s done, clear a path to embrace what really runs this Island and what will really help our town. Then and only then will Tisbury wake from its slumber.
Geoghan Coogan was born and raised in Tisbury. He’s been practicing law in Tisbury for 17 years, and was a Tisbury selectmen from 2010 to 2013.