West Tisbury held a joint select board meeting with Chilmark and Aquinnah to discuss how to fund Howes House renovations, which is home to the Up-Island Council on Aging. Aquinnah was represented by its town administrator, Jeffrey Madison.
A half-hour before the meeting, West Tisbury treasurer and Howes House building committee member Katherine Logue gave Up-Island town officials and the public a 20-minute tour of the building, starting outside, and showing the different rooms indoors. Logue explained that while there are parts of Howes House that must remain, per the West Tisbury historic commission, other areas of the building need serious attention, such as the “work in progress” second floor and the basement exercise area that is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“We’ve been at this for some time, at least a year-plus,” West Tisbury select board member and Howes House building committee member Skipper Manter, who also led the Howes House feasibility study, said during the meeting. “As you saw during the tour, this is an old building with some new add-ons that was kind of piecemealed together, that’s not very efficient for lots of reasons.”
Up-Island Council on Aging assistant director and Howes House committee member Bethany Hammond gave a rundown of the services offered by the council, such as legal clinics and exercise programs, and explained that the building has inadequacies for meeting these services, such as risky columns in the basement exercise area and a lack of private areas to address sensitive topics (e.g. insurance, legal help).
“We’re hoping that with the renovations, whatever form it takes down the road, we’re able to bring in some new programming, bring in the privacy for a lot of the work we do, and with an increase in space, be able to accommodate the growing older population — we all know it’s getting bigger faster — and really hoping that the changes in this building will last us decades to come,” Hammond said.
West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand added that the “dysfunctional layout” of the building also needs to be addressed, since it can affect the council staff’s ability to help visitors. Up-Island Council on Aging administrative assistant Jennie Gadowski concurred.
Logue said an option for paying for the renovations is modeling the Tri-Town Ambulance funding formula, where all three towns share costs.
“West Tisbury would pay for the design phase and all the things associated with that part of the project, coming up with the design and paying through the point where we actually have [construction] bids in hand,” Logue said. “Although we’re paying for that, we’re looking for participation from the other two towns in that design process. We don’t want the design process to be just by West Tisbury, because it’s got to serve all three communities, and we want to be sure we take that into account.”
To make sure the voices of the towns’ residents are heard, the committee is doing a focus study. Howes House building committee member Bernadette Lyons said the study provided an “innumerable amount of information,” such as how some people who lived on Martha’s Vineyard for years did not know there was a YMCA on-Island, which shows how there may be people unaware of Howes House’s existence.
Logue continued the financing discussion by saying the idea is that once the construction phase is reached, “each town would pay a third, and the operational costs are divided up as they are now, based on usage.”
“We’re hoping to get some clear sense of how the other two communities feel about that and what their intentions are by the end of this month,” Logue said. “We’re … picking an architect [this week], and we’re going to be hitting the ground running very soon, and obviously if what we have in mind is different from what you have in mind, we need to know that now, not six months from now.”
Manter and Logue shared a “rough” preliminary total cost the committee has been working with for the renovations: about $8 million. Rand said this high price estimate is because of Howes House’s location, “dead-middle” of the historic district, and the commission’s requirement to save original parts of the building (built in the 1800s) instead of allowing fresh replacements, and infrastructure issues.
Howes House’s size would also need to increase, although it is currently uncertain by how much, to comply with current regulations, according to Logue. These include meeting ADA requirements, adding two “big staircases,” and replacing the lift with “a real elevator.” Howes House is 3,833 square feet in size, Rand told The Times in an email.
Chilmark select board member Warren Doty felt there was a lack of outreach from Howes House to Chilmark and Aquinnah residents.
“To be perfectly frank, I’ve often thought of this building as the ‘West Tisbury Council on Aging,’ and it doesn’t seem, to me, to serve the town of Chilmark or the town of Aquinnah as much as it should,” Doty said.
Hammond shared that 50 Aquinnah residents, 300 Chilmark residents, and 580 West Tisbury residents have used Howes House’s services during fiscal year 2021 (ends in June). Among the Up-Island residents who are 60 years or older, there are 210 in Aquinnah, 600 in Chilmark, and 1,320 in West Tisbury.
“I’m surprised at these figures, because I talk to my fellow Chilmarkers, and I ask in a group of old people, ‘Have you used this service?’ and they ask, ‘Huh? Where’s that?’” Doty said, not completely convinced Howes House acts as the “Chilmark Council on Aging.”
Gadowski later said Howes House does reach out to people, and pointed out that many people who use the council’s services, such as food stamps, do not advertise it because “that’s an embarrassment to them.”
Madison brought up the point that Aquinnah has difficulties “participating in regional projects,” such as renovating Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, because its residents have a higher tax burden than the other towns.
“We always, historically, have contributed one-third, one-third, one-third, and tried to carry our weight,” Madison said, adding that this “comes at a cost” to the capital projects Aquinnah needs. “We are looking at two capital projects that are absolutely necessary in Aquinnah. We haven’t built libraries, we haven’t built senior centers, we haven’t built schools. The last capital project in Aquinnah was done when I was a selectman member in the late ’70s or early ’80s.”
Adding another cost to a regional effort “will be a difficult sell,” according to Madison.
“You can only wring so much out of that small town,” he said. Aquinnah has a population of 439 people, according to the 2020 U.S. census.
Chilmark select board member James Malkin said to Madison that even if there are difficulties, if Howes House is the senior center for Aquinnah, it would be appropriate to pursue it. He also mentioned that Up-Island seniors could have problems coming to a Howes House event if they are aware of it, referencing the recent forum held by the Martha’s Vineyard Older Adult Transportation Coalition.
After more discussion, a consensus was reached that Chilmark and Aquinnah should find representatives to join the committee in its efforts, and to continue the talk at a later date. Doty asked that the feasibility study be made into a document for viewing. His fellow Chilmark select board members agreed that more information would be needed before a final decision.