ORLEANS — The Governor Prence Inn on Route 6A, which did not open this season, could be acquired by the town for housing and other uses. Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan made the announcement at his board’s Sept. 16 meeting.
Earlier this year, the town was approached by the Ross family, which owns the Governor Prence as well as the nearby Seashore Park Inn; the latter was open this summer. In July Gov. Prence general manager Dave Ross said people had been discouraged from making reservations because of pandemic restrictions and called the reduction in foreign students able to work here in the summer “a crippling blow.”
Discussions over the last few months in executive sessions involving the select board, affordable housing committee, and affordable housing trust have led to “a letter of interest that will provide the town time to evaluate the use of the parcels… for housing and potentially other uses,” Galligan said. “A feasibility study, including public participation in the evaluation of a range of uses, is planned to be jointly funded by (a special town meeting warrant article next month) using general town funding from free cash and with separate additional funding from the affordable housing trust.”
Pending favorable results, Galligan said, “a potential purchase and sales agreement may be brought to voters at the spring 2021 annual town meeting.” The 5.5-acre property at 66 Route 6A sits on high land above the intersection of Routes 28 and 6A and is on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. It was once graced by the Jonathan Young windmill, which was removed to Hyannisport in the late 1800s and is now located by Town Cove.
It was in the late 1950s that the look of the hillside changed dramatically. Residential design firm owner Greg DeLory takes it from here.
“My family was friends with the Johnson family of Orleans who owned and built the Governor Prence,” he wrote in an email. “Knowing that I was ‘good at art,’ Del Johnson, Jr., asked my mother if I would be interested in making a sketch of a motel that he was planning in Orleans across from the Howard Johnson’s on Route 6A. His idea was to move and repurpose the existing house on the lot and put on two additions for motel rooms. He wanted to see what a pitched gable roof would look like with two wings coming out of either side.”
In the year 1958, “it was late fall and cold. My mother and I sat in the car with the heater on while I sketched the future Governor Prence Motel. At 10 years old, this was my first architectural job. It would be many years before I got back to designing buildings on Cape Cod.”
Built in 1959, the inn was named for Plymouth Colony Governor Thomas Prence who so loved his home in Eastham that he had to be induced to move to the colonial seat of government in Plymouth by the gift of a large farm known as “Plain Dealing,” according to research by Anne Stradal of the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans.
Alan McClennen, who chairs the town’s affordable housing trust, said Ross got in touch with Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey after the decision was made not to open the Governor Prence this season. McClennen joined Meservey and family members for a socially-distanced meeting under the inn’s canopy and agreed they would bring the matter to the select board in executive session.
“The Rosses came to the town,” McClennen stressed, “because they were not interested in going on the open market. They felt, given their long association in Orleans, that the town should be notified first. As soon as the closed sign went up, they had people approaching them. They committed from the very first meeting that they wanted the town to have first choice.”
In early August, the select board approved further negotiations. “When the trust and the affordable housing committee were pulled into the meetings,” McClennen said, “people pointed out that, it being one of the four largest parcels in the downtown and in the Village Center zone, it was incumbent upon all of us to look at other possible uses for this site. Housing was clearly the principal focus, (but) people said, ‘We need to make sure we have looked at all the options that could be combined with housing.’”
Given facility needs ranging from the fire station to a community center to the library, “if we’re gonna look at a five-and-a-half-acre site in downtown, we must at least examine whether or not some of these other uses should be considered,” said McClennen. “We then realized that although the trust would proceed to study this site for affordable housing, it could not spend trust funds (to assess) other uses. That’s why there’s a warrant article in the special town meeting for $15,000 to help analyze the site.” He expects the trust will chip in more than that figure for the study.
The trust has already paid for an appraisal of the site, which is assessed by the town at $1,809,900, and has shared it with the owners. McClennen said Meservey and he made clear “that we could do some preliminary work without having to go to town meeting for money.” That’s an advantage, he said, of working with the trust to study alternatives.
“Most importantly,” he said, “they know that if town meeting decides to go ahead next spring, they will have a closing in July 2021.” Contrast that, he said, with dealings with private developers where “There isn’t going to be a sale in most cases until the developer has the building permits in hand,” which could stretch things out another year or two.
The next step is for the owners to sign the letter of interest. Then McClennen wants to see a “town-wide participatory process” on the property. “When something like this comes along,” he said, “you need to have a real discussion about what can happen, what should happen, and what are the implications. This in itself could be the first significant development outside the seven units on Cove Road in downtown Orleans after all these years of discussion.”
On another front, McClennen said the Cape Cod 5 is “talking seriously” with Penrose, the developer of the new Village at the Green affordable rental community in Eastham, about doing a similar development at the bank’s former operations center in Orleans. Those discussions are based on extensive studies and analyses funded by the affordable housing trust.
The trust is looking forward to another community meeting for neighbors of 107 Main St., the focus of plans for a dozen affordable rental units. Having received comments at the first meeting and in writing since, McClennen said, “the trust and committee are wide open to discussing all of these alternatives. We don’t want to do something that antagonizes the neighborhood in our first project, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, the foundation is in at a trust-support Habitat for Humanity house on Quanset Road. A wall-raising is anticipated next month. Finally, renovations are complete on a two-bedroom, two-bath condo unit on Old Colony Way. “The housing authority will be reaching out to find appropriate tenants,” McClennen said.
As word gets out, he added, others are getting in touch with the town about properties. “As a planner, I’ve always said, ‘How many balls can we keep in the air?’” said McClennen. “A lot fall naturally. You don’t want to sit around saying, ‘What do we do now?’”