Despite Cost Concerns, Selectmen Advance Upweller Project

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Infrastructure , Waterways

Some recreational anglers spent the afternoon at the town dock at 90 Bridge St. Monday.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — A new shellfish upweller building and multi-purpose waterfront facility on Bridge Street will almost certainly cost more than the town anticipated several years ago. But to get closer to knowing exactly how much more, selectmen last week voted to spend another $200,000 in engineering funds.

While critics of the project say the town should be reining in spending given the pandemic, supporters say a strong shellfish propagation program will help a number of local families weather the economic storm that might be ahead.

Using land at 90 Bridge St. purchased by the town several years ago, town officials devised a plan for building a new upweller in a building on a pier next to the Mitchell River drawbridge. The new structure will replace the shellfish grow-out facility at Old Mill Boat Yard, which is old and requires regular repairs to remain operational. To maximize the use of the new land, town officials proposed including float docks, a broad deck, additional parking spaces and a public restroom. The board rejected a previous plan as too expensive and ambitious, and adopted a scaled-back version last April.

The project is one of several key improvements to town waterways infrastructure included in a 10-year bond authorization which also funded work at Old Mill Boat Yard, the new trap dock at Stage Harbor and the badly delayed fish pier observation deck. Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the 90 Bridge St. project is complex and will require extensive permitting. He asked selectmen to approve $200,000 for the first phase of engineering and to hire Pomroy Associates to oversee the design, permitting and bidding process. The second engineering phase, at $300,000, would bring the project to the 100 percent design phase and obtain the necessary permits. Those funds are being sought through a state Seaport Economic Council grant, Duncanson said. When the engineering designs are complete, the project can be put out to bid, and the town will then know the cost of construction. Initially, the job was estimated to cost $2.09 million.

“That was a rough ballpark estimate at the time,” Duncanson said. When the design was refined, it became clear that a bulkhead would need to be installed, which will cost up to $1 million. “If you add that to the $2 million we had initially, now you’re up at roughly a $3 million project,” he said. Escalated from 2019 dollars, the cost estimate now stands at $3.4 million.

“A lot of people want to see this project finished,” Selectman Cory Metters said. Any delays could jeopardize state grant funding, he noted.

The $200,000 plus a further $300,000, will help the town determine whether the project will actually cost $3.4 million, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. Given the energy and resources already spent on the job, “I think it’s foolish not to get to that point,” he said. Still, Dykens said he would like to see figures for the economic value of the town’s shellfish harvest in order to verify the return on the town’s investment in a new upweller.

Board member Dean Nicastro said he likes the latest design for 90 Bridge St., but said it was just one of a considerable number of big-ticket capital projects, “some of them completed, some of them contemplated, including the senior center.” Nicastro read the board a letter he received from Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel, who suggested that the project be deferred, given current financial uncertainties.

“To be very clear, we are not opposed to the notion of a new upweller for the town,” Daniel wrote. But with local families struggling, the town should be spending on “needs rather than wants,” he said. The finance committee believes the town should be focused on its social infrastructure, Daniel added.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said it’s well known that when tough financial times strike, “the first thing that most locals know to do is to go scratch some quahogs to go make some money.” In that sense, the upweller is a social project, she said.

“The residents of Chatham recognize that shellfishing is a year-round and crucial part of the fabric of our community,” shellfish advisory committee Chairman Jamie Bassett said.

“We need to move forward with this funding as soon as possible,” south coastal harbor plan committee Chairman Michael Westgate said. While the town is indeed investing in many capital projects now, “this is the one job-generating project” among them, he said.

Nicastro asked what would happen if selectmen appropriated the $200,000 on the condition that the town successfully receives the remaining $300,000 from the state. In that event, the project would likely be delayed by three months, Duncanson replied.

“I’m not convinced that waiting two or three months is a big deal,” Nicastro said. Selectmen fully support a new senior center, but just deferred it to a special town meeting in September. “I think it’s time to take a little bit of a breather.”

The majority of the board disagreed, and also rejected a proposal to provide only a portion of the $200,000, withholding $75,000 to be paid to Pomroy Associates for project oversight.

The town is seeking to retain the consultant at an early stage at the direction of the board, given lessons learned from the fish pier observation deck “and the fact that that project did not go as well as any of us wanted it to,” Duncanson said.

On a 4-1 vote with Nicastro dissenting, selectmen authorized the $200,000. Engineering firm GEI Consultants is ready to proceed immediately, Duncanson said. That money is expected to fund work through late August or September, at which time the town will learn whether its $300,000 state grant was approved. If the project goes ahead according to schedule and there are no permitting problems, construction would take place over the winter of 2021-2022.