CHATHAM — Twenty years ago, the town faced some daunting challenges. The fire station was overcrowded, the police station was falling apart, and key town officials’ offices were warrens in a run-down annex cluttered with filing cabinets and desks. Many public meetings took place in an old portable classroom, and rec programs happened in a small community building that was largely unchanged since it was built just after World War II.
So town officials devised a plan to replace aging town buildings, one at a time, in what was an unprecedented multi-year project. And while the plan took longer than expected, it finally came to fruition, though not exactly the way it was first envisioned.
Tom Groux, who was hired as Chatham’s first town manager in early 1994, said it didn’t take him long to realize that the town had serious capital needs. In fact, it was about a month after his arrival.
“The floor between the old part of the town hall that fronts on Main Street, and the back, which was an addition, the floor gave way and it collapsed,” he recalled with a chuckle. “The only way you could get from one end of the town hall to the other was to go outside and go to the front door.”
The town offices on Main Street had long since been outgrown, and an annex had been established in one of the buildings at the former Airport Lumber site on George Ryder Road, which had been acquired by the town. The offices were crammed into that space, which was cluttered and noisy, and public meetings took place in a meeting room converted from a former portable classroom. That meeting space was actually more comfortable than the cramped selectmen’s meeting room in the basement of the town offices, which suffered from regular floods and other problems.
The fire station was similarly run-down, with insufficient space for apparatus and personnel. The department didn’t have separate dormitories for male and female firefighters. Groux recalls having a conversation with Fire Chief William Schwerdtfeger, who said that staff had found ways to work around the building’s shortcomings, “but he said that’s something that we really ought to address.”
The police station also had serious structural problems, building code violations and lead from an old indoor firing range in the basement.
“It was so archaic,” he said. “It obviously wasn’t going to hold up for another five or 10 years. And the staff was putting up with stuff for a long time, without complaining.”
Former Selectman Eileen Our said it was clear that the town had been ignoring big-ticket capital items.
“We were often just maintaining,” she said. The town offices needed work, “and the police and the fire departments were in terrible shape too,” she said. Our credited Groux for coming up with a vision for moving ahead. “I think he could see that it was really starting to cost us a lot of money” to repair and maintain the aging buildings, she said.
By 1998, the town was in a financial position to begin addressing those problems. Prompted by a citizens’ petition seeking to convert the old Main Street School into a cultural center, Groux released a five-year plan that involved a series of ambitious capital projects.
Our credited Groux for coming up with the plan, but she said it wouldn’t have been possible without the expertise of the town’s finance director, Donald Poyant.
“With Don on board, we had that foresight,” she said. The plan, later enumerated by Groux’ successor, William Hinchey, was to incur a certain amount of debt, and then when those debt service costs declined over time, to take on debt for the next project. This approach of using “debt drop-off” was designed to allow for a series of capital projects without causing repeated tax increases.
“That allowed us to look forward,” Our said.
Groux’ plan called for the construction of a new police station at George Ryder Road, along with a new town offices building. The existing town offices at 549 Main St. would be sold to the private sector, but the town would retain the public parking area.
In retrospect, Groux said that idea was flawed.
“I probably should’ve involved a lot more people in some of those thoughts,” he said. Selling the town offices might have made financial sense – the projected revenue from the sale would’ve helped fund the other capital projects – but “I should’ve known that it wouldn’t fly with the community,” Groux said. The town offices are an “anchor” downtown, much like the library, he said. Our agreed.
“Having the town hall presence on Main Street is delightful to our community,” she said. “We’re not a city.”
The 1998 blueprint also called for the front portion of the Main Street school to be sold to a private developer, who would be expected to renovate and preserve the historic building; the rear of the school would then be demolished to make room for a community center. A special committee toiled away for years on the future of the Main Street School, with voters rejecting its recommendations more than once. Ultimately, the town retained the entire structure for use as a community center, renovating the front and adding a gymnasium in the rear.
The debate over the Main Street School was long and contentious, Our recalls.
“What came to my mind at the time was that Harwich had made the terrible mistake of taking down the Exchange Building, and they regretted that,” she said. It became clear that a majority of voters wanted to protect the old school.
“I think nostalgia was still there for the Main Street School, because all the voters had gone to school there,” she said.
Under the plan, the completion of the community center would have allowed the demolition of the old community building on Hitching Post Road, making room for a new, expanded fire headquarters. That was envisioned to be the last piece of the capital puzzle.
“I felt bad that we kept putting the fire department off, to get the other buildings done,” Our said.
The five-year plan largely came to fruition, though it took 18 years to complete. The basement of the town offices were renovated, and the community center was completed in late 2007. Two years later, the old town hall annex was demolished, making way for the new $17 million police station and annex. In 2014, the old fire station was razed to make room for a new station. Along the way, the town even picked up other capital projects, like the new DPW building on Crowell Road.
In the end, the town’s building boom came about because of town officials – elected, appointed and paid staff – who worked to build voter consensus behind each of the projects, which were arranged like dominoes.
But the capital plan didn’t fully envision what would become far and away the town’s largest-ever capital project ever: the wastewater plan. Most of the planning for that project took place during Hinchey’s tenure as town manager. Twenty years ago, all that was known was that Chatham was under orders to upgrade its wastewater plant to handle increasing demand.
“I figured that was a longer-term project,” Groux said. At the time, he knew something nobody else did: he wouldn’t be around to get the wastewater project started. Groux announced his resignation a month after releasing the capital plan. With leadership from Health and Environment Director Robert Duncanson, Hinchey “moved it along very, very well,” Groux said.
The projects happened because of Chatham’s strong tax base, he said.
“The town’s financial capacity far exceeds its population,” Groux said. The total property tax assessments in Chatham are larger than in some of the large suburbs of Boston. “And the tax rate is phenomenally low by comparison,” he said.
Capital planning is a job that never ends. Now, the town is pondering ways to replace the senior center, a job that wasn’t even being considered 20 years ago. Our said the town had an opportunity to buy the current senior center at 193 Stony Hill Rd., “and then we decided what to do with it.” The building was not initially designed to be a senior center, but changes were made during construction to better accommodate that use, she said.
“That’s why it’s such a mishmash now,” Our said. The senior center wasn’t much of a focus 20 years ago. “We didn’t think it would be used that much, to be honest,” she said. Now, the demand for services has risen to match the increase in the town’s senior population. “The age group in this town has changed dramatically,” Our said.
For his part, Groux said he’s glad the town has kept pace with residents' increased demand for services, and has mostly conquered its town buildings to-do list.
“I’m impressed. The people who’ve been running things for the last 20 years have done a fantastic job of improving things,” he said. Groux admits he doesn’t make much use of the community center or other town buildings, other than to renew his transfer station sticker at the annex each year. But it doesn’t diminish his appreciation for what the town has accomplished.
“All of those things are amazing to me, and I think they’ve been done with an awful lot of careful planning and thought.”