Because Of Delays, New Observation Deck May Wait Until Fall
CHATHAM — With angry fishermen struggling to offload their catch, and with crowds of sightseers looking in vain for a place to watch, town officials are voicing frustration with the contractor hired to replace the observation deck at the fish pier.
While some of the delays are linked to this spring’s unusually wet weather, many are blaming general contractor Sciaba Construction Corp. of Walpole and its subcontractors for not providing sufficient staff for the job. On many days, fewer than four laborers can be seen working at the site, sometimes as few as one. Next Monday, selectmen will decide whether to have the contractor suspend work on the observation deck until the fall, meaning the town will be without one of its prime visitor destinations this summer.
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson made a personal appeal to the company president and doubled the frequency of meetings with the contractor, who initially planned to have the job complete by June 6, but obtained permission from the town to extend the work through this Wednesday. The company now expects to have the entire project done by July 19, Duncanson told selectmen this week.
“But I think it’s questionable whether that date could be met, now that the fishing is really getting going,” he said. “Fishing in the last day or so has significantly ramped up.” While there has been progress in some of the paving work this week and the shingling of part of the packing house, there was little evidence of progress on the observation deck. Because of safety concerns and worries that construction debris might contaminate the fish being offloaded below, Duncanson said he may be forced to recommend that work cease on the observation deck until after the summer.
The goal this week was to get the facility functional again for fishermen. Work continues on the fuel system, which is now slated for completion around July 8. The davits that fishermen use to unload their catch should be operational by Monday, Duncanson said.
Meanwhile, with refrigerated trucks jostling with construction workers for space in the lower parking lot, the usual influx of fish pier visitors has begun, with people coming to watch the seals or see the fishing boats unload. Because of the construction, there’s a need for additional personnel to oversee the fish pier area, said Harbormaster Stuart Smith. Recently there have been harbormaster staff in the upper lot as well as the lower lot to keep people away from the construction areas.
“There’s too much activity to have people wandering around,” he said.
Paving of the upper lot will help free up staff, he said, but with no observation deck, it’s still going to be a challenge to keep people away from the ongoing construction work in the lower parking area as well as the normal fish pier operations around the packing building as well as the north and south jogs, where fishing boats often offload. It’s unclear how the facility will deal with the level of crowds that usually show up in the summer, estimated at as many as 3,000 people per day.
“That’s a lot of people to turn away,” Smith said.
At last week’s meeting of the Aunt Lydia’s Cove Committee, fishermen quizzed Duncanson on the reasons for the delays.
“The world is interested to know what went wrong,” committee member Luther Bates said. He asked what guarantee the town has that the completion date won’t be postponed further to Aug. 1, given the contractor’s previous assurances of progress. If the work is still underway then, it will be “pandemonium,” Bates said.
“Do we have Plan B ready to go?” Chairman Doug Feeney asked. Duncanson said the town may hire its own electrician to complete some parts of the work, if necessary, or may simply “shut the job down” until fall if necessary.
While the contractor and its president have provided repeated assurances that the project will be complete soon, the town is losing confidence, Duncanson said.
“To put it bluntly, we’ve had a non-responsive contractor,” he said last week.
In a bid to facilitate progress, the town agreed to extend the hours during which the crew can work, allowing construction seven days a week as late as 9 p.m. Based on the observations of town staff at the fish pier, it does not appear that the contractor has taken advantage of those extended hours, Duncanson noted.
Committee member Joel Rottner said he believes officials should consult with its attorney to see what penalties the town might be able to levy against the contractor. Under state law, he town may have the ability to require a $500 a day penalty for late work, but many at the meeting said the fine would be a negligible expense under a $1.6 million contract.
Duncanson said he is optimistic that the concrete ramps at the north and south sides of the pier would be ready for forklifts to use by Monday. While the packing company continues to pay the town rent for use of the facility, it is unable to get its forklift inside.
Fishermen pay a premium for use of the fish pier in the form of town-issued docking permits, Bates noted. Given the disruptions, “are they going to consider waiving some of the docking fees?” he asked.
While some fishermen have already shifted some of their operations to Stage Harbor, that’s not possible for the businesses located at the fish pier.
Andy Baler of Chatham Pier Fish Market said his business is already down 45 percent for the season. If construction continues through the holiday weekend, the economic hit will be much greater.
“It’s going to kill me,” he said.
“The town could pay the fishermen not to work for two weeks in July so that the observation deck could be put in place,” Bates said.
“The markets need the fish,” committee member Jared Bennett said. “That’s not the problem.”