CHATHAM — With the commercial fishing and visitor seasons rapidly approaching, delays in rebuilding the fish pier observation deck are causing nerves to fray.
“It’s becoming a safety issue,” commercial fisherman Doug Feeney, chairman of the town's Aunt Lydia's Cove committee, told selectmen Monday night. Commercial fishermen are unable to unload their catch in the usual way because the electric fish hoists have been disconnected during construction, and the lower parking lot is still congested with construction equipment. On Tuesday, the upper parking lot was also partially fenced off as crews poured concrete.
“There seems to be quite a bit of work that needs to happen before the observation deck [is built],” Feeney said. With commercial fishermen getting busy again, and with federal fishing quotas giving them only limited time windows in which to fish, the pressure is on for the construction job to be completed.
Andy Baler, owner of Chatham Pier Fish Market, said the construction has been extremely disruptive to his business.
“It’s absolutely killing us. We’re absolutely starving for people to come down,” he said. Everyone thinks the fish market is closed because of the construction, “no matter how many signs we put up.”
On Tuesday, a number of summer visitors were gathered at the bulkhead immediately next to the construction area, snapping selfies and photos of seals in the harbor. Some were crowding the docks near the north jog, which were cordoned off with caution tape.
“We were told you could come here to take pictures,” one first-time visitor said. “You can’t see anything. Is it always like this?” she asked.
New visitors to the fish pier could be forgiven for not knowing about the observation deck, since no trace of it remains. Concrete footings have been poured for the structure, but for now, crews are focusing on completing work on the fish offloading area below, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said.
The reconstruction of the observation deck necessitated the replacement of the fuel pipes running from underground tanks to the fuel pumps next to the packing house. And that was an opportunity to replace the aging fuel tanks. The $1.6 million contract with Sciaba Construction Corp. of Walpole initially called for the work to be completed by or before May 15, in what town officials acknowledged was an aggressive schedule. The contract was awarded in December and the contractor received its notice to proceed in January, but work didn’t begin until April. A particularly wet spring caused additional delays, Duncanson said.
The town issued six different change orders for the job, extending the completion date to June 26.
“That’s the current timeline the contractor has to finish the work up,” Duncanson told selectmen.
This week, crews were expected to work on the concrete pads before beginning the sub-structure of the observation deck. After that time, most of the work will be done from above, “and it won’t be impeding” commercial fish operations below, Duncanson said. Contractors have been asked to restore power to the fish hoists as soon as possible, and once the fuel pumps are back in service, everything should be in place for fishermen, he said. The contractor is aware of the urgency, he added.
Baler, who watches the construction every day, said he’s not satisfied with the pace of work.
“They’re not pushing forward fast. No one’s cracking the whip on them,” he said. The commercial fishermen and his business all need to be fully operational by June 1, “not July 1,” he added.
The observation deck is one of the town's most popular tourist attractions, drawing as many as 3,000 people per day during the height of the summer season. Its capacity was limited to 100 for several years because of structural concerns. The new deck will be larger and will have a second stairway for emergency access as well as a small elevator to comply with accessibility laws. Unlike the old deck, the new one is free-standing and is structurally unconnected to the packing house.
The construction also prompted the group Women of Fishing Families to cancel this year's Blessing of the Fleet.
Feeney urged town staff to keep the project moving before the June 26 deadline.
“It’s coming quick,” he said. Feeney also asked the board of selectmen to consider what steps will be taken in the event the contractor doesn’t meet that deadline.