Finding Howes House’s place in West Tisbury

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More discussions will be made about Howes House's future in West Tisbury. — Eunki Seonwoo

West Tisbury will be increasing discussions about the future of Howes House, which is home to the Up-Island Council on Aging, alongside reaching out to individuals 55 to 75 years old about the topic. This decision was made during the West Tisbury select board meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 7. 

West Tisbury resident Susan Wasserman sent a memo to the town asking how Howes House’s current renovation trajectory fits with the town’s future plans alongside several suggestions, such as integrating the council’s program’s with the West Tisbury library. 

West Tisbury resident Doug Ruskin could not attend the meeting, but sent a letter to recommend the town “take a brief step back from the Howes House project and seriously consider” Wasserman’s points.

Wasserman prefaced by saying she appreciates all of the work that has gone into the process. “But, as we’ve gone from a renovation and remodel to a bigger project, at least from my reading of it, I need to ask, What is the best use of the building?” she said. “How does this project fit into the town’s long-term space needs and plans?” 

Wasserman pointed to the West Tisbury town hall renovation project process as a good model to follow. “I’m just asking that we pause long enough to figure out where this multimillion-dollar expenditure fits, and what should be done there in the center of town,” she said. 

Board chair Cynthia Mitchell said the town has had “variations on this conversation” for months, including the focus group study conducted by the Howes House building committee. 

Board member Skipper Manter, who also chairs both the building committee and the Up-Island Council on Aging board, gave a brief rundown about the process, starting from when the Howes House feasibility study committee was formed, and added that they plan to “proceed slowly and cautiously with this project, without the architect driving the bus.” Manter continued by saying the old building is “in need of a lot of work.” 

“It’s in need of a lot of work [in] lots of areas. Not just structurally, but the HVAC system, the elevator, the handicap accessibility is apparently nonexistent according to today’s codes. That building … has been there for a long time, and part of the center of West Tisbury,” Manter said. Additionally, Manter later said, the site is difficult to work on because of the lot size restrictions and requirements by the West Tisbury historic district commission. 

Manter also said the building committee does not have “any intention of making that exclusively a senior center.” Besides the council, various Island organizations use the building for different purposes. “We believe we would like to see that continue. There’s no reason why it can’t continue,” he said. Many of the Howes House’s interior areas are planned to be multipurpose in design, and recommendations from the focus groups will be taken into account. 

Board member Jessica Miller said her understanding was that while the council receives priority for the building, it will be multifunctional. Additionally, her sense is that this “is not going to be a fast process, it hasn’t been a super-fast process,” so there is time to receive input. 

West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand shared facts about Howes House alongside addressing points that came up in the memo. According to Rand, the up-Island towns voted to create the council in 1972 to provide services for the elderly, and that it would be located in the Howes House. Additionally, while the deed has no language about the building’s usage, Rand said correspondence shows that there was an understanding for Howes House to be “used exclusively for public services including but not limited to a library, a recreation center, et cetera.” 

Rand clarified to Wasserman that the library would not be able to take on council programs with its current resources. Rand also said there is a “visioning” process for Howes House in the works. 

Other meeting attendees also had the opportunity to comment, starting with West Tisbury planning board chair Virginia Jones, whose mother-in-law Gladys Jones gifted the building. Virginia participated in a focus group, and suggested a “much larger” building to get the seniors away from “the vulnerable areas,” contrary to the memo saying Jones proposed building “a small office building on the Field Gallery property.” 

Leah Smith, president of the Friends of the Up-Island Council on Aging, urged building committee members “to expand the possibility for public discussion of this” besides the focus groups. 

After reading the memo, building committee member Bernadette Lyons said, “We’re far from a permanent decision on what the construction and what the plans will look like. This is still a major ongoing discussion of how it’s going to be laid out.” 

West Tisbury finance committee member Cathy Minkiewicz suggested those present bring in “a slightly younger mind” to the process. “We’re not building this for our current generation. Many of us [are] one foot out of this generation and onto wherever. So let’s not try to set this all in concrete,” she said. “No, it’s what is good for the community and for the future.” 

Focus group participant Susan Silk said the average age of Councils on Aging users is 75, although those 55 and older were eligible for services. The stigma that the councils were for much older individuals, such as 90-year-olds, was a factor preventing some on the younger end of eligibility from going. “I would urge this process to reach out to folks who are 55 to 75 to find out what they would like to have on this campus, because quite frankly, they’ll be paying for it and using it,” she said. 

Paddy Moore, this year’s Spirit of the Vineyard awardwinner, said in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Councils on Aging “are re-envisioning themselves.”

“Some of it is toward intergenerational programming. Certainly, all of them are engaged in trying to address the issue of ageism,” she said. 

Mitchell said the town will increase discussion about Howes House with its residents and reach out to younger segments of the older population, although no vote was taken.

Silk volunteered to help in outreach efforts.

In other Howes House business, the board unanimously approved entering into a $900,000 all-inclusive design contract with Keenan + Kenny Architects. The Falmouth firm will be in charge of hiring the necessary contractors and consultants for its phase of the project. Travel and reimbursable expenses are also included in the contract cost. 

Meanwhile, the board made several appointments to town committees. The board unanimously appointed Abby Bailey and Andrew Lester to the Complete Streets committee and Ivory Littlefield and Alex Bullin as at-large and alternate members, respectively, to the affordable housing committee. The board also unanimously promoted Andrew Zaikis and Jeffrey Kaye from associate to full members of the zoning board of appeals. 

The board unanimously approved sending a letter to the Massachusetts Office of Business Development in support of the Cape Cod Economic Development Council’s request for the office’s Regional Economic Development Organization (REDO) grant. The council is pursuing this grant in partnership with the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce.

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