Popular Tourist Attraction Finally Completed A Year Behind Schedule
CHATHAM – The newly rebuilt observation deck at the fish pier is getting rave reviews for its solid construction and spaciousness. It better be; the $1.7 million project took 18 months to build, more than a year more than originally planned.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. “It's just too bad it took so long.”
But the deck saga may not be over yet. If disputes over damages and delays between the general contractor, Sciaba Construction Corp. of Walpole, and the town can't be resolved, it may end up in court.
“We'll certainly be open to some sort of talks and negotiations,” said Sciaba Chief Financial Officer Michael Sheehan, but the company won't accept liquidated damages, which the town began assessing in November. The company may actually seek its own damages for what he said were delays caused by the town.
The deck opened to the public July 2 after the town received a temporary occupancy permit. The outdoor elevator required to meet access regulations was still awaiting state inspection and not yet functioning, according to Director of Health and Natural Resources Robert Duncanson. Despite that, and a few other non-critical items, officials wanted to get the deck open before the July 4 holiday weekend.
“Everything kind of came together at the last minute,” Duncanson said.
The wearing of face coverings on the deck is mandated by the board of health between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., and tape on the railings provides six-foot social distancing guidance. While most visitors appeared to be wearing masks, many crowded together around hoists to watch as fishing boats offloaded their catch.
Completion of the deck ends a project that should have taken a few months but ended up stretching over multiple seasons. One of the town's most popular tourist destinations that in the past attracted as many as 3,000 people a day, the deck was closed for the entire summer of 2019, creating logistical problems as visitors flooded the pier area anyway, resulting in a traffic nightmare and conflicts with commercial fishing operations.
The contract for the project was awarded to Sciaba in December 2018. Work was supposed to begin in January but did not start until March. After a series of missed deadlines beginning in May 2019, in November the town started to issue liquidated damages — fines. The damages have grown to between $30,000 and $40,000, Duncanson said.
Staffing was a constant issue. Often there were only a couple of workers on the site. Work hours had to be extended to evenings and weekends to avoid conflicts once commercial fishing operations began last June. According to an October memo from Rick Pomroy, who was brought in as owner's project manager, along with consultants Foth Engineering, to help keep the project on track, Sciaba underestimated the time it would take to complete the work given existing fish pier conditions.
But the work followed the contract specifications, was meticulous and of good quality, according to reports filed by Pomroy and Foth.
“I'm very pleased with the quality of the workmanship,” Duncanson said Monday. “I think now that the public is down there and can see for themselves, they'll walk away with the same impression.” The pandemic had little impact on the project, he added. Most of the work had been completed before shutdown restrictions were imposed, and with only a few workers on site at any one time, social distancing was not an issue.
“It's vast,” said Shareen Davis, chair of the board of selectmen. “I think it came out nice.”
Sheehan agreed the final product was “really nice,” but the project was “a real difficult job to begin with, without everything else that was added to it,” such as working around fishermen and tourists.
Trouble began when the town issued a partial order to proceed, and continued when the schedule was resequenced after Memorial Day 2019, he said. By then part of the work, the replacement of underground fuel tanks in the upper parking lot, was completed, and the contractor returned that portion of the work area, as well as the area underneath the deck so that fishermen and fish packers could operate. Crews had to work at night, and could only work six hours a day, Sheehan said.
“We lost a ton of time there, working around the fishermen,” he said.
When the town began issuing damages, it did so to the highest level in the contract, $500 a day; Sheehan said the town had taken back 70 percent of the project. The contract, he said, also states that damages should not be used as a penalty but should reflect the actual damages suffered by the town.
“They have yet to prove how they have been damaged,” he said. Because of change orders that extended the original contract more than 130 days beyond the original 142-day duration, Sciaba suffered damages, he said.
“It's not a simple case at all,” Sheehan said. The company is now assembling its claims which will be submitted to the town. “We'll see where it goes,” he said. “Whether it gets to court remains to be seen.”
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said as of early this week, she had yet to meet with staff and consultants to close out the project. A post-mortem project review will be done, she added. Davis said the experience has taught officials “a lot” about approaches to capital projects, one of which is that having a work site open to the public can be a problem.
“That didn't do us any favors,” she said, but because of the popularity of the fish pier, use of docks by the public, the fact that a private business is located there and the commercial fishing operations, “we couldn't close it down.”
By contract, the reconstruction of the Stage Harbor trap dock, a site closed to the public, was completed in a matter of months.
Because of structural problems, the original deck was limited to 100 people before being closed completely in late 2018. The new deck has a larger viewing area with a 185-person occupancy limit. It is constructed of composite material with a stainless steel superstructure. The deck is water tight to protect the fish offloading floor below; water is channeled into “infinity drains” that discharge runoff into the harbor.
One of the problems with the old deck was that it was attached to the fish packing building and had pulled away from it on occasion. The new deck is free standing, which also creates a barrier-free workspace below. Before, fork lifts occasionally ran into the columns that supported the deck.
The new access stairs on the north side are wider, and there is a second emergency egress on the south side. The contractor requested a state inspection in order to open the elevator, Duncanson said, which should happen any time.
The original contract cost of $1.6 million increased to $1.7 million due to several change orders agreed to by both the town and the contractor.