Task Force To Hold Two Forums To Solicit Public Input On Diversity

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Education , Affordable housing

Students arrive at Monomoy Regional Middle School on the first day of classes. A decrease in the number of school-age children in Chatham is one of the signs of a demographic imbalance that the Chatham 365 task force is hoping to solve. The group will hold two public forums in April to get ideas from residents on how to address the diversity issue. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The task force appointed by the board of selectmen to identify ways to build a more sustainable, vibrant and diverse community will hold two public forums next month to ask residents for their ideas on meeting that goal.

The Chatham 365 task force will host the forums on Saturday, April 6 from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Wednesday, April 10, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Both take place in the large meeting room at the community center.

The group has been meeting for the past few months and has focused much of its attention on preparing for the forums, said Selectman Shareen Davis, co-chair of the task force.

“A lot of good planning and good community outreach has started,” she said.

“I think it's going pretty well,” added Selectmen Peter Cocolis, the group's other co-chair. Much of the discussion has centered on identifying the central issues and ways to get at solutions, he said. “This is not a task force that's going to take on this issue. The whole idea is for this task force to get a good feel, to come back with some policy options, or some program options, that the town could look at.”

The task force grew out of several concerns. The town's economic development committee raised the issue of families and young people leaving town because of the cost of living, including housing and childcare. At the same time, other organizations, including the Housing Assistance Corporation, were ringing the same alarm, the central theme of which was without some sort of intervention or policy changes, Chatham – and the Cape – will continue to lose young workers and families with school-age children and there would be fewer housing opportunities for those who make too much to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to pay the escalating cost of housing, both owned and rented, which is being largely driven by the second home market.

The issue also came up in a 2016 survey done by the council on aging. Seniors identified a lack of young people as an important issue.

“They don't want a 55-plus community,” Cocolis said.

The demographic imbalance is starkly demonstrated by Monomoy Regional School District officials' recent comments that number of Chatham students in the system had dropped by 35, he added. Between 2010 and 2017, year-round households in Chatham declined by 11.9 percent, according to school officials.

At the forums, facilitator Brad Schiff, also a member of the task force, will ask participants three questions: How did we get to the place where it is so hard to live here year-round; what are the challenges to live in Chatham year-round; and what would move Chatham to become a thriving, vibrant community.

The forums will be “listening sessions” for the task force members, Davis said. The responses will inform recommendations the group makes to the board of selectmen, which may include a master plan with policies to guide town government decisions that impact sustainability.

“This isn't going to be one committee that does this,” said Cocolis. There will likely be recommendations for groups like the planning board, community preservation committee and affordable housing committee. “Everybody has a little piece of it.”

“Hopefully there will be other things that come out of it that will be more community based, not just town government,” Davis added.

That's already started, Cocolis said, with the proposal to add $30,000 to the town's childcare voucher program. Although not a direct outgrowth of the task force, more funding for childcare was one of the ideas that drove its appointment and was promoted by its members, along with the economic development committee.

“I think there's a clear understanding in the group of what the problem is,” Cocolis said. “They have clear ideas about where to go.”

At a recent meeting task force members looked at the town's comprehensive long range plan, which was adopted in 2003. It mentioned issues of income disparity and housing affordability, he said, but didn't identify them as problems or pose solutions. “We have new problems now,” Cocolis said, “and we have to address them.”

Task force members want the process to be as inclusive as possible, Davis said. Residents, non-resident property owners, folks who work in town and those who would like to live here are all encouraged to attend the forum.

“This is a community-based project,” she said. “I'm advocating for the community's voice to be heard in this process.”

Free child care will be provided through the Monomoy Regional High School Service Program. Reservations are required; contact jjordan@monomoy.edu for information and to reserve a spot.