CHATHAM — The town's economic engine is running smoothly, but a few initiatives – like a new focus on providing affordable child care – could provide some high-octane help for local employees and the companies they work for.
That was the word from economic development committee Chairman Luther Bates, who told selectmen last week that his group also favors the creation of new events and festivals to boost the visitor economy in the shoulder seasons.
In late 2015, selectmen charged the committee with finding ways to encourage greater age diversity in town, and the committee focused on ways to retain or attract younger residents.
“Everybody between 18 and 44 is leaving town, relative to other populations,” Bates said. On Cape Cod, that demographic has decreased by 27 percent in the last decade, he noted. “They're hitting the road, and as a direct answer to that, we've got to figure out how we're going to keep them,” he said. The economic development committee examined the causes of the exodus.
“We've got two main smoking guns. One is the lack of gainful employment opportunities and the other is the high cost of living,” Bates said. With job creation the purview of the private sector, the committee focused on cost of living expenses, the greatest of which is housing. With the median home valuation around $800,000, finding affordable workforce housing is an enormous challenge. “What are six guys sitting around a table going to do about that?” he asked. Bates said Chatham should follow developments in Provincetown, which is attempting to purchase a bankrupt timeshare complex to use for workforce housing. Voters there have also adopted a new inclusionary housing bylaw.
If housing is the top expense for working families in Chatham, child care is next on the list, Bates said. The estimated cost of child care ranges between $280 and $363 a week. At those rates, the cost to provide care for a child from infancy to fifth grade is $106,000 per child, he noted.
“That's a substantial amount of money,” Bates said. Between 20 and 25 percent of Chatham families seek financial assistance for child care, the committee reports. The availability of affordable child care is a key factor for families deciding whether to settle or stay in Chatham.
By alleviating some of that burden from local families, “that would free up some disposable income that they could spend on their housing,” Bates said.
The committee recommends that the town consider various efforts, like increasing annual funding for Monomoy Community Services, boosting funding for child care vouchers, or exploring public-private partnerships with existing child care providers. The town should also consider partnerships with other towns, or lobbying for an expansion of child care in the Monomoy Regional School District. Alternately, the town could provide 100 percent full-time child care, the report reads.
Aside from the child care recommendations, the economic development committee is advocating for more town-wide festivals or events, particularly in the shoulder season. Such events not only draw visitors to town, but encourage seasonal homeowners to spend more time in Chatham, where they shop, dine and use services.
Specifically, the committee encouraged an expansion of the Chatham Merchants' Association's annual Oktoberfest, which has grown in size and which “has the potential to anchor a larger fall event or festival,” the committee report reads.
The committee also acknowledged ongoing efforts by the shellfish advisory committee to develop a special event focused on Chatham shellfish. Such an event could ultimately be expanded to become a town-wide public festival akin to the popular Wellfleet Oysterfest. Town officials could encourage this and other events by streamlining permitting and offering to close down a portion of Main Street for pedestrians, Bates said.
The report also points out the increasing popularity of the Chatham Shark Center, and the power of shark education to bring visitors from around the world to Chatham.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said some have raised concerns that such events might not be effective at attracting visitors who stay overnight, eat in local restaurants or take part in recreational opportunities. They come on a bus, “they stay a couple of hours, and they leave,” Nicastro said. But if such events encourage seasonal residents to stay longer during the shoulder season, they could be beneficial.
Nicastro had some reservations about overemphasizing the town as a destination for shark enthusiasts. While he supports the efforts of the shark center, “we don't want people not coming here because of the sharks,” he said.
“The sharks wouldn't be here without the seals,” Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said. A better approach might be to focus on all of Chatham's wildlife.
“I think ecotourism certainly is a fine way to begin,” he said. Dykens also said he supports efforts to market Chatham shellfish. The town has oysters that are highly sought after, and its quahogs are “just the best in the world,” he said.
Wellfleet sees a huge surge of people during Oysterfest, Bates said. Having a similar event in Chatham would require careful planning, “but certainly there's a way to step up to that plate.”