CHATHAM — It’s not exactly high praise, but given the pandemic and the economic disaster it spawned, the summer of 2020 could’ve been worse.
The visitor economy was buoyed by day-trippers and longer-term visitors who came from places within driving range to the Lower Cape.
One metric of activity in downtown Chatham is the use of the paid parking lot at the former Eldredge Garage property. Chatham Valet ran the paid parking operation for an abbreviated season from July 3 to Sept. 7, and numbers were down in July by 1,008 and in August by 1,331, Community Development Director Katie Donovan told selectmen last week. Miladin Terziysk of Chatham Valet said that while numbers were off, the season wasn’t a complete wash-out.
“To be honest, it was better than we expected,” he said, adding that most of the parking customers were beachgoers. Terziysk said Chatham Valet is interested in operating the parking lot again next summer.
Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin said that, despite “a whole new set of challenges that we had never previously encountered,” it was a good summer for the town’s beach operations. While there were dire predictions that COVID-19 would deter people from sunbathing or swimming, the beaches were very busy. Good weather contributed to the trend, he said, and the town sold a record number of weekly parking passes this summer.
“We took in $256,220 in online beach sales this summer, which exceeded the revenue taken in the previous year,” Tobin said. Out-of-town beach visitors were able to purchase an online parking pass for the first time thanks to a system quickly devised by the town’s information technology department, which allowed more paperless transactions at the gatehouses while collecting information needed for contact tracing in the event of a coronavirus cluster.
“The disadvantage to the process was that it took five minutes or longer to complete a transaction,” and some people had trouble getting a signal on their cell phones, Tobin said. Some also complained about the transaction fees associated with the online purchase. “Although this system had its issues for users, it is the way we are headed in the future as we move away from cash sales at the beaches,” he said.
The “COVID monitors” hired to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing at the beaches proved very helpful, Tobin added. Before they were fully hired and in place, overcrowding took place at the beaches one Sunday. “We also had a Sunday that we closed Harding’s Beach prior to the parking lot filling due to distancing requirements when monitors were in place,” he reported. “For the most part, people were very cooperative and kept the necessary spacing.”
Helping with the beach spacing were the beach nourishment projects at Harding’s Beach and Cockle Cove and Ridgevale beaches. The sand, dredged from the Stage Harbor channel, provided much more usable beachfront at those locations, Tobin said.
Having rejected early proposals to restrict vehicle traffic to make more space for pedestrians, the Downtown Working Group of staff and merchants created several short-term parking areas to allow visitors to pick up orders of food for take-out or to retrieve goods from stores that offered curbside service. The new parking areas eliminated four parking spaces near Bearse’s Byway, two spaces near the visitor information booth, and redesignated 14 other spaces for curbside pick-up.
“Overall, the working group felt the changes put in place were successful and were just enough to provide less congestion for vehicles and pedestrians as well as help the merchants as they altered their business practices,” Donovan reported to the board. Selectman Dean Nicastro, who attended all of the working group’s sessions, agreed.
“I think we came up with a Goldilocks approach,” he said. And many of those changes will remain in place for the time being, as tourism officials do their best to keep visitors coming to the region while the weather remains favorable.
Chatham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cavanaugh said the chamber and the Chatham Merchants’ Association have been collaborating on “some safe activities that we can promote for our businesses and for the town for the fall, and up to the holidays.”
While the annual Oktoberfest has been canceled because of COVID-19, the Pumpkin People in the Park display will be held once again through Halloween, according to Susan Dimm of the merchants’ association. Members will likely find new ways to decorate the downtown area, “because we can’t really do much else” in terms of a fall festival, she said.
Traditional holiday events are out, as well, but the chamber and the merchants are exploring the possibility of creating a “virtual passport,” possibly in the form of a smartphone app, to guide people through downtown Chatham.
“The Christmas tree lighting, obviously, we can’t do, or Santa parading through town, so we’ll do that by videotape,” Dimm said.
While one of the two parking spaces in front of the chamber booth will be restored, the other temporary parking changes will remain in place. Signs will be installed that will make it clear that parking is allowed in cross-hatched spaces between Columbus Day and Memorial Day.