And How The Town Purchased The MCI Properties
SOUTH CHATHAM — Twenty years ago this month, an impromptu group of neighbors crowded into a cottage in South Chatham to consider a pie-in-the-sky proposal. A little more than a year later, they’d be credited with pulling off what is arguably the town’s most significant land purchase of the last century.
Changes in the Telecom Industry
By the late 1990s, technological advances had changed ship-to-shore communications, rendering wireless stations like Chatham’s obsolete. Built by Marconi and later run by RCA, the receiving station in Chathamport and the transmitter site in South Chatham had passed to MCI and had been shuttered.
“The whole thing was abandoned,” South Chatham resident Maraide Sullivan said. She and her husband, Jim, were focused on the 73-acre transmitter site near their house, where the view of the marsh and Nantucket Sound was obscured by the 300-foot steel tower and the network of antenna wires and poles. Then, in mid-September of 1998, news came that telecom giant WorldCom had purchased MCI for a breathtaking $40 billion. It seemed like a good time to see what might be done to preserve the property.
“We knew somewhere there was a clock ticking,” she said. Sullivan contacted town hall and learned that she wasn’t the first to have had that idea; town officials had approached MCI as early as 1993 to express interest in the South Chatham and Chathamport sites, but had been rebuffed.
“Everyone was having difficulties getting any kind of response from MCI,” Sullivan said. She stopped at town hall and met with Selectmen Thomas Bernardo and Douglas Ann Bohman, and Bohman in particular was key to try again. “She got the vision,” Sullivan said.
By writing the name at the top of a press release, the Sullivans created the Friends of Forest Beach, and announced a public meeting that would be held at their summer cottage on Oct. 10. They didn’t know if anyone would show.
“Forty people showed up,” she said. “Literally people were down the hall, they were packed into our kitchen. It was really the ultimate of ‘grassroots.’”
As a group and with input from many attendees, the Friends wrote a bold letter to MCI WorldCom, politely asking the multinational corporation to consider handing over the land. The letter indicated that some sort of deal could be beneficial to the giant corporation.
“And we had no money,” Sullivan said with a chuckle. “But we would find it.”
A Deal with MCI WorldCom
Two days after the organizational meeting, Sullivan faxed the letter to MCI WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, having found out his private telephone number and fax number (“I’m never going to tell anyone how I got this stuff,” she quipped). And two days after that, Sullivan heard back from the corporation’s vice president of real estate. The timing was fortuitous.
In the days that followed, the corporation published an advertisement offering the South Chatham land for $2 million, and the Chathamport campus for $4 million. It was clear that the properties, highly desirable because of their water views, wouldn’t last long. One calculation by the town indicated that the upland at Forest Beach could be neatly carved into 10 single-family house lots, each fetching top dollar.
Talks were carried out very quietly and seemed to be progressing. Once she had opened communications with MCI WorldCom, Sullivan talked to Bohman to find out if the town had interests beyond the South Chatham site.
“I said, ‘things are going very well here. Do you want me to try and get Chathamport?’ She said, ‘Go, go,’” Sullivan recalled. From that point on, talks included the 15-acre Ryder’s Cove site, which had already been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to efforts by Norman Pacun and the town's historical commission.
The Friends of Forest Beach knew that timing would be critical. They were not only hoping to fend off large bids from private real estate developers, but they knew that a special town meeting would be needed to authorize any purchase, and it would take time to inform the public and recruit their support.
But MCI WorldCom was also motivated to act, and was seeking to sell off surplus properties as soon as possible before the merger was finalized. The transaction needed to happen in the current tax year. The telecom giant agreed to the Friends’ first request, which was to take the property off the market.
The Friends initially proposed that the corporation remove the radio tower, building and antennas and donate the South Chatham property, but the corporation balked. There were a few counter-proposals before the corporation agreed to sell the just over 90 acres of land for $950,000.
Sealing the Deal
With an agreement in concept, one more task awaited the Friends of Forest Beach: coming up with the money. Knowing the deal wouldn’t last until the annual town meeting in May, selectmen called a special town meeting for March 9, 1999, and proponents of the land purchase started lining up supporters. It looked like voters would endorse the article, but the Friends didn’t relax their effort.
“You never know,” Sullivan said. “We had volunteers calling people to go to the town meeting. We didn’t take anything for granted.” The Friends worked various angles to encourage voters to embrace the land purchase.
“We all fell into different roles in special ways,” she said. Bohman continued to be the key contact between the Friends and the town, and longtime Cape Codder Charlie Cahoon became a sort of troubleshooter. If a business or a group of citizens raised concerns about the project, “Charlie would be right there to talk to them,” Sullivan said. He also did some of the group’s interacting with the media.
Because the story was so unlikely – a group of neighbors forging a partnership with a multinational corporation – it attracted the attention of reporters from around the country and was the subject of regular regional press coverage.
The special town meeting itself was almost anti-climactic.
“I knew the selectmen were in,” she said. Sullivan, whose full-time residence was in Connecticut, needed special permission to speak at town meeting. There was a short explanation of the project, “and no one objected,” she said. “Within 20 minutes, they’re folding up the chairs.” It had been approved by a unanimous voice vote.
On the heels of the March vote, the town’s fledgling land bank open space committee began to work on the purchase of 13 acres on Lovers’ Lake, land that was originally part of the Marconi campus and had been offered by WorldCom to a Virginia-based conservation group. The Friends had asked WorldCom to consider offering that land to the town if the Virginia deal fell through, which it did. Under the leadership of John Sweeney, the land bank committee lined up support for that purchase, which was approved at another special town meeting in November. The land bank was so new that hadn’t yet been funded and had to borrow from future revenues to execute the purchase.
The Friends' Legacy
When the 300-foot tower in South Chatham was finally demolished, the spectacle drew a large crowd, and Boston television station cameras joined the corps of local shutterbugs seeking to capture the moment. It was more positive press, which was part of the deal the Friends made with WorldCom. Later, MCI-WorldCom representatives joined the Friends and the town in receiving a special honor from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Friends had had the good fortune of working with Bernard Ebbers when he was a the height of his power and influence and not his notoriety. Dubbed the “Telecom Cowboy” for his habit of wearing blue jeans and boots instead of a suit, Ebbers is now serving a prison term. Two months after he left WorldCom, the corporation announced billions of dollars in accounting irregularities, resulting in an investigation and scandal. The financial improprieties had no bearing on the Chatham land deal, and Ebbers continues to deny wrongdoing.
It’s not clear why Ebbers was receptive to the Friends’ overtures in the first place.
“At the time, we had no idea if he had any connection at all with the Cape,” Sullivan said. Years later, they learned that he had been a yachting enthusiast and had visited Cape Cod, though “I don’t think he had ever been to that property before.”
If the Friends hadn’t facilitated the purchase, there might be no Chatham Marconi Maritime Center today. But the Friends’ first focus was on preserving the South Chatham site.
“We were happy to bring [the Chathamport property] into this opportunity,” Sullivan said. “But we also didn’t want to be in a position that we were telling people in Chathamport what to do with the property close to them.” As it was, there had already been some talk among radio enthusiasts and former employees of the RCA sites about restoring the campus.
“I give lots of credit to those who were so dedicated to preserving the history of Marconi and Chatham’s place in history,” Sullivan said. “We were preserving the property and the beauty and the nature, and this additional group of people were into the preservation of history and Chatham’s role. So it’s really kind of cool,” she said.
The Friends’ effort in Chatham was also apparently a model for the preservation of a similar ship-to-shore radio site in California.
“It’s possible that we kind of started something,” she said. MCI-WorldCom was seeking a way to divest itself of property near the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. The property was conveyed to the National Park Service, and a group of volunteers came together to restore the remaining artifacts of the wireless station, which now operates on the weekends and during special occasions.
Today, the South Chatham site is a conservation area, reserved by deed restriction to conservation and passive recreation purposes. It offers a sweeping view of Nantucket Sound and Monomoy Island and is home to all kinds of wildlife, including a resident family of ospreys who live on the poles that once held the wireless antenna system. Preserving that view was the goal of the Friends of Forest Beach from the start, Sullivan said.
“The Cape has these little quiet places here, there and everywhere,” she said. “This is supposed to be one of those places.”