HARWICH — Town Administrator Christopher Clark told selectmen Monday night he received an email this week from another party interested in pursuing a public/private deal to locate a restaurant at Saquatucket Harbor.
Clark was before the board seeking to lay out a process for how to move forward with such an arrangement. The town has had at least one other expression of interest from a private consortium for locating a 100-seat restaurant at the harbor. He was looking for direction from selectmen, but the response from board members was mixed.
Clark provided the board with a draft version of a request for proposals. Regulatory boards approved a snack shack at the harbor and the town's architect, working on the landside improvements for the harbor, also designed a 60-seat restaurant, he noted. But the cost of the landside project exceeded town expectations and the food service component was removed from the plan.
The public/private partnership was seen as the way to move forward. But just what type of service was the question; town meeting approved a snack shack concept on the knoll looking over the harbor.
Clark suggested an RFP with options for a snack shack, a 60-seat and a 100-seat restaurant. The latter two options would require going back to the planning board for site plan approval, he said, with parking the primary consideration. He also said town meeting would have to approve at least a 30-year lease.
The building would be constructed at the expense of the leaseholder. Clark suggested there could be a 40-year lease to allow time for the developer to recoup what could be a $1 million project. At the end of the lease, Clark said, the building would revert back to the town. Such a project would require the leaseholder to address an upgraded septic system and affiliated parking issues.
“I think it's a community initiative,” Clark said.
Selectman Donald Howell said there was considerable discussion from people in town meeting, who said they didn't want a restaurant competing with other restaurants and preferred a snack shack. He questioned the worth of a restaurant building to the town after 30 years. He also said the leaseholder would not be paying taxes for the property.
Clark said there are mechanisms requiring payments in lieu of taxes. Selectmen Jannell Brown concurred and said she heard from constituents who want a restaurant there. Selectman Julie Kavanagh said she supported a 60-seat restaurant, maybe 100 seats, depending upon the parking impact.
Kavanagh said she has heard concerns about the town being a landlord, but this is a different situation with the public/private relationship. The town can incorporate a tax impact and even town insurance.
Selectman Larry Ballantine also said he favored a 60-seat restaurant and would explore a 100-seat facility. But he added he wants to make sure the town gets paid its fair share. Ballantine said the harbor can be an economic benefit to the town, adding he has heard from some of the residential abutters who have encouraged the town to move forward with the project.
But Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said there are 37 restaurants in town and one is directly abutting the harbor. “We should be supporting the businesses that come to town, not one on town property,” he said.
With $10 million being spent on new docks and renovations to the land and waterside of the harbor, MacAskill said it will be one of the more beautiful spots in town and be an attraction. He said a new private group should not be allowed to block the view.
Kavanagh said a building could be designed not to impact the view and the restaurant would be seasonal. She said it can be difficult to get into restaurants in town during the summer months.
“The harbor project is a perfect case of how a screw up can get screwed up,” Leo Cakounes said. He cited his proposal in town meeting to build the maintenance facility first and come back for a snack shack in a second phase. He said people left town meeting thinking the $3 million approved would cover the entire project.
The town spent $825,000 to purchase the Downey property to provide parking, and with a restaurant and a new medical facility across Route 28 – which is looking for parking rights on the town site – the town may need to purchase more land for parking at a heavy cost, he said.
Clark said the Outer Cape Health Service facility in a worst case scenario would be looking for 40 parking spaces. But he said the planning board would make site plan determinations. Clark also said he would look to other communities to see how they would handle similar situations.
Cakounes identified himself as part owner of the land, along with all other taxpayers, and he urged the town to get top dollar for a restaurant. He wanted to know what the town expected to get for an annual lease, suggesting it should be in the $125,000 range.
Cakounes, chairman of the Barnstable County Commission, said the number one business failure on the Cape is restaurants. “You need an iron-clad agreement protecting my investment,” Cakounes said. “If you let it go for any less than a developer would get, you are subsidizing the restaurant. Don't jeopardize my property.”
Noting the increase in the number of slips in the harbor, Chris Our expressed parking concerns. He said he could live with a snack shack for the boaters, but not a 60-seat restaurant.
Howell asked about the parking conditions. Harbormaster John Rendon said the Downey property will provide 90 new spaces. About five will be lost with the new harbormaster's office and another eight if a snackshack is added. MacAskill said a traffic study should be conducted given the potential for a restaurant and the new medical facility across the road.
Neel Road resident Karin Larsen also spoke to the need for additional signage along Route 28 informing motorists of sideroad and the additional activities centered around the harbor area. It was pointed out Route 28 is a state road, requiring the commonwealth to address signage.
Clark said there since town meeting will need to address a long-term lease, it might be best to also bring final approval of a successful RFP to voters.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cyndi Williams said the board of directors has not taken a position, but she pointed out a number of the restaurants in town had to close early this year because business slowed down in the fall.
“First and foremost we should take care of the businesses we've already welcomed into town,” William said. “Let's see what the harbor project looks like and see how everyone is succeeding before we add something else.”
Selectmen agreed more information is needed before they take action on developing a request for proposals and agreed to place it on a future agenda.