Oak Bluffs officials question cultural district designation 

Ruley ‘not sure’ if the town ‘needs to attract more people on a daily basis.’

The event will be held at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. — Jeanna Shepard

The Oak Bluffs Select Board was hesitant about supporting a request Tuesday evening from Oak Bluffs Association Executive Director Billie Jean Sullivan to designate part of the town as a cultural district. 

With a radius of roughly two miles, the proposed district would encompass the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, Union Chapel, Flying Horses, and Mariposa Museum, along with a number of art galleries and historical attractions. 

Sullivan said having the designation, which only 53 other districts in the state tout — including Aquinnah and Vineyard Haven — would be “a feather in our cap” for Oak Bluffs residents and business owners. 

The designation would be accompanied by a $15,000 grant from the Mass Cultural Council, and would not require additional funding from the town, although it would need someone assigned to oversee the initiative. 

If the town weren’t able to staff that role, Sullivan told board members, she’d be happy to step up, offering a partnership with the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA).

She said the effort to get the cultural district designation aligns with the goals of the OBA, whose aim is to promote tourism and drive commerce.

That’s what the designation could do, Sullivan said. It would allow for an alternative way to experience Oak Bluffs, and with that, “bring more commerce.” 

Select board member Gail Barmakian said she’s “hesitant.” The proposed location is “broad” and “ambiguous,” she said.

Town administrator Deborah Potter said the designation would come “with a lot of ties and strings attached.”

She noted that it would require ongoing data collection, annual reporting via the grant’s management system, regulations on signage, and a commitment to conducting ongoing surveys and reviews of the district. 

Select board member Emma Green-Beach said she’d like to consult with Tisbury to see how that town maintains and operates its cultural district. Barmakian agreed, and said she’d like to be presented with more information. “I’m hesitant because it encompasses so much of the town,” she said. 

Board chair Ryan Ruley said it makes sense for towns like Aquinnah to want to highlight their Cliffs as a designated cultural attraction. “I’m not sure Oak Bluffs is in a position where we need to attract more people on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s one thing we [already] do very well.” As a town, “we’re well-established.”

“We attract a ton of traffic” as is, Ruley said, adding that there’s an ongoing parking problem in downtown Oak Bluffs. 

He said perhaps the select board can look into the possibility of the designation at a later date, when it’s determined whether it would benefit the town. 

In a call with The Times Wednesday, Sullivan said she found the response of the select board “a little shortsighted.” 

She noted a similar request to the board by Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts, last year. That request was also met with resistance. 

“Oak Bluffs is special,” Sullivan said, “[it] has so much to offer … it’s not just about T shirts and ice cream.” 

Oak Bluffs offers a plethora of cultural and historical attractions, she said. The proposed district would highlight those spaces, strung together in an easily walkable route. 

For Oak Bluffs residents and businesses, Sullivan said, a cultural district designation would “raise us up.” 


  1. Ruley says there’s an ongoing parking problem in Oak Bluffs. How many parking spots are being lost with all the “improvements” on Circuit and Kennebec Aves? How many are going to be lost when the roundabout goes in at the Bulkhead?

    • OB didn’t lose any spots. Town added spots to make up for the ones lost on circuit.

        • If, in fact, the proposed cultural district has “a radius of roughly two miles”, a few of those spots could be in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.

          • Where IN TOWN? I’ve seen no new parking spaces on Kennebec Ave, around Ocean Park, along the Seawall or anywhere else IN TOWN. There are a couple down on the far end of the harbor, by the bathrooms, but is that really IN TOWN?

  2. Here in Texas any town that can use the word “plethora” in a sentence already qualifies as a cultural district. I once heard someone use that term referring to what the cows were leaving behind in their stalls and that poor fella was run out of the state. Anyway, Oak Bluffs has plenty of plethora already. Sometimes, you’ve gotta watch where you walk not to step in it.

  3. I applaud this effort and support Billie’s recognition of the cultural uniqueness of Oak Bluffs. Personally, this”attraction feature” is one we should celebrate, and accommodate! Let’s not dismiss this offer and designation opportunity because of parking and data collection …it would be refreshing to see us put the same effort /priority into this aspect of tourism as we spend on the “nightlife entertainment” in Oak Bluffs. Hats off and gratitude to Billie Sullivan, an unsung OB hero.

  4. Look up Windermere, Florida, they proudly tout the 2.2 square miles that make up “Windermere”.

    • Therese– thank you for pointing this community out to us. I did Look it up. It seems nice—
      But I did not find anything that seemed relevant to the conversation on this thread.
      Please clarify why you brought this nice community up as having anything to do with the MV times article about designating a part of Oak Bluffs a Cultural district.

  5. I agree with Ms. Sullivan that it’s shortsighted of the selectmen of the town not to be willing to support a cultural district. I don’t think it would necessarily attract more people. It would give those already here something more to do than walk up and down Circuit Avenue with an ice cream cone wondering what else there was to do! There’s so much of interest in Oak Bluffs and this would give them the ability to discover and learn about these truly unique places. And Ms. Sullivan is willing to staff it in a partnership with the OBA. It sounds like the town just doesn’t want to be bothered. Perhaps when they hear about how Vineyard Haven is doing with their district it might change a few minds. There’s already an arts district, why not a cultural district? Plus it comes with some money!

  6. I, too, support Ms. Sullivan’s proposal. As an OB resident I’d like downtown to be recognized for our rich variety of artisans and events. Let’s show there’s more to downtown than bar hopping.

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