A Frustrating Milestone For Fish Pier Deck

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Waterways

Two construction employees work on the fish pier observation deck last week.  A similar number of employees have been on site most workdays since before the holidays.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

A Year Since Project Began

CHATHAM — A year ago, when the town signed a contract with Sciaba Construction Corporation for the construction of a new fish pier observation deck, there didn't seem to be any reason the job wouldn't be done well before Memorial Day. That gave plenty of time for the pier and packing house to be ready for high season for commercial fishing, and for the deck to be ready for the annual crush of visitors.

A year later, with blame flying in both directions, the $1.6 million deck still isn't complete.

Though the contractor says the job will be substantially complete in the next few weeks, the record of previously missed deadlines leaves ample room for skepticism.

“The contractor said yesterday the end of the month is still looking good,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said Friday. “I asked him what month, and he said January.”

The deck itself is complete, as it has been since well before the holidays, and the two carpenters on site will soon be building the two sets of stairs: the main staircase on the northern end and a smaller one for use as a fire escape on the south side.

“The fire suppression system is probably 95 percent installed,” and an electrician is expected to begin work as soon as the deck is complete, Duncanson said. The railings will then be completed and the handicap-accessible lift will then be installed. “Progress is being made,” he said.

Michael Sheehan, chief financial officer for Sciaba Construction Corp., confirmed that work should be essentially complete by the end of the month. “We’re just installing the stairs now, and then there’s some minor things to do, but we’re just about there,” he said. The elevator is prefabricated and can be installed quickly, Sheehan said. “There was a little holdup with the elevator with some design issues, but we worked through them,” he said.

As of last week, two construction workers could be seen on the job, about the same number of people visible on the job site since around November.

“The staffing has been a problem for months,” Duncanson said. But under state law, the town cannot dictate the means and methods a contractor uses to finish a job, he noted. After several previous delays, the town received a substantial completion deadline from the contractor of Nov. 28. Since Nov. 29, the town has been assessing liquidated damages of $500 a day under the terms of the contract.

Sciaba will “absolutely” be contesting those damages, Sheehan said. He blames the town for the delays, saying the partial order to proceed it issued at the outset didn’t allow any actual site work to begin until Feb. 28, though the clock had already begun counting down to the project completion date. The town still wanted the contractor to complete the work by Memorial Day, “which would be highly impossible,” Sheehan said. The contractor was surprised when, after that time, there was an onslaught of tourists and commercial fishermen seeking to use the site.

“I had absolutely no idea going into this thing that 30,000 people a week come through the place, the tourists,” Sheehan said. “I had absolutely no idea there was that much traffic down there.” The company agreed to suspend some work during peak summer, taking steps to ensure that the fish unloading area was operational for the benefit of the town’s commercial fishing fleet.

“I didn’t have to give them back the pier area. I didn’t have to let them offload fish there,” Sheehan said. Doing so was an act of good faith which the town is now repaying by seeking liquidated damages, he argued. Other reasons for the delay were wet weather, a required zoning variance, and a series of change orders, “through no fault of ours,” he said.

In November, Sheehan publicly announced that Sciaba Construction would be suing the town to recover extra expenses caused by the delay, but town officials have received no such notification.

“We’re still talking about it,” Sheehan said. “We’re going to see what the reaction of the town is.”

Selectmen Chair Shareen Davis said there is clearly public pressure on town staff and on the board of selectmen to get the project completed, but she didn’t want to comment further. The board may soon take up discussion of the project in executive session, Davis noted. Such closed-door sessions are sometimes held to allow the board to discuss legal strategy.

There are fears, even among some staff, that continued disputes with the contractor could mean additional delays that lead into the summer, even though the job is nearly complete.

“I’m hoping that, whatever happens, this project will be completed by this summer,” Davis said.

Having missed its original Memorial Day deadline, the project was pushed to Labor Day, following a summer that saw traffic jams, frustrated fishermen and throngs of confused visitors hoping to watch the activity at the fish pier. Town officials provided police and harbormaster staff to control traffic throughout the period. Town officials and those who work at the fish pier report that the contractor had very few employees working at any given time for much of that period. Work seemed to accelerate after the town and the contractor settled on an Oct. 16 deadline, but progress was not fast enough, and that “final” deadline was missed. A new Nov. 29 target date came and went, as well. Sheehan said that by Jan. 31, the job will be essentially complete, with just a “punch list” of unfinished tasks to complete.

The quality of the new deck is not in question, Duncanson stressed.

“That’s probably the most frustrating part. The construction appears to be good. The schedule is problematic,” he said.

Will Sciaba Construction be bidding on any construction projects in Chatham in the future?

“I’ll be bidding on every one of them,” Sheehan said. When his company takes on a job, it seeks a cooperative, flexible relationship with the customer for solving problems, not the “contractual relationship, everything’s-black-and-white” approach Chatham takes, he said. “But the next one will be like that, I’ll tell you.”