Town Accepts Donation Of Coast Guard Boathouse

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Historic preservation

A vintage photo of the Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse with the famous CG36500 tied up at its pier. FILE PHOTO

Plans For Reuse Are Still Developing

CHATHAM Twice before, the town of Chatham declined opportunities to take ownership of the historic Coast Guard Boathouse that once watched over Stage Harbor. Members of the select board weren’t about to turn down a third opportunity, voting Tuesday to accept the donation of the building and effectively saving the structure from demolition.

It appears feasible that the building could be used to house a new shellfish propagation upweller on a pier to be built at 90 Bridge St., taking the place of a new purpose-built structure that was being planned. With the added costs of transporting the historic boathouse from Quincy, storing it temporarily and outfitting it for its new purpose, reusing the historic building is expected to add around $763,000 extra to the estimated $4.7 million upweller project.

But the select board put off any discussion on that proposal until additional information could be gathered.

Although there appeared to be strong public support for returning the boathouse to Chatham, with a growing movement to provide private financial support for the project, the select board took no action to accept any such arrangement.

Select board member Jeffrey Dykens made the motion to accept the donation of the building, admitting that doing so was “a little bit on a wing and a prayer,” but saying he is confident that the town will support the restoration and reuse of the boathouse. The board voted 4-1 to support Dykens’ motion, with board member Dean Nicastro dissenting.

Accepting the gift of the building is premature “because we don’t know what we’re going to do with it,” Nicastro said. He suggested that the board ask staff to develop several funding models for the restoration, including ones with private financial contributions. His primary interest is minimizing the project’s impact on taxpayers, Nicastro said.

Resident David Doherty, who has led the charge to preserve the boathouse under the auspices of Stage Harbor Boathouse Preservation, Inc., was joined by attorney Jack Farrell in speaking to the board Tuesday. Farrell said the effort has the support of Monomoy Yacht Club Commodore Jim Doggart, who has proposed that the yacht club pledge up to $1 million to cover the additional cost of using the historic structure, in exchange for allowing the club to install a second floor meeting space in the building. The club could then lease the meeting room from the town on a long-term basis, applying the money it spent on the renovation toward lease payments. The proposal is in its earliest phases and has not yet been brought to yacht club members for consideration.

Farrell said it is too early to discuss the specifics of such an arrangement “because it’s going to be complicated, it’s going to be challenging.” But with the town’s commitment to acquire the boathouse, those talks “can start in earnest. We are not asking for the board to write a blank check,” he said. A similar partnership with the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center resulted in the restoration of buildings at the town-owned Marconi campus in Chathamport, which the center occupies as part of a long-term lease.

In that case, Community Preservation Act funds were used to support the preservation of the historic buildings and would likely be sought for the boathouse restoration project. Community preservation committee Chairman Michael Tompsett said his committee has already received an application for around $250,000 to help start the work. CPA funds have been used before to move and restore a historic Coast Guard boathouse on Nantucket, where the building has also been repurposed as a shellfish upweller, Tompsett said.

As it did in the case with the Marconi center, a partnership between the town and a private entity would pose some complications. Any long-term lease of the town-owned boathouse would need to be offered up for bids from entities other than the yacht club. And any work done on the building would face the extra costs associated with public building projects, which must comply with prevailing wage laws. In both cases, the town could seek special legislation to circumvent those problems, but doing so would likely cause delays.

The board urged Doherty and Farrell to continue talks with the yacht club and other groups interested in preserving the boathouse.

“The number one priority is getting the boathouse back,” Farrell said. As for the details of a public-private partnership, “you’ve seen that the will of the people is there, and this town always comes through,” he said.

Built on the shore of Stage Island in 1937, the boathouse once housed the CG36500, the rescue boat used in the famous rescue of 32 men from the stern section of the stricken tanker Pendleton during a blizzard in 1952. The town passed on the opportunity to take ownership of the rescue boat, which is now in the care of the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans.

Select board member Peter Cocolis said he supports bringing the boathouse back to Chatham. “I wish we could get the Coast Guard boat back from Orleans, but that’s a different point,” he said.

Dykens said the town has received letters of support for preserving the boathouse, and while a firm plan isn’t yet in place, he supports accepting the donation of the building “knowing that people will do their darndest to get the money to make this project come to fruition.”

“I don’t want to lose this piece of history,” board member Cory Metters said.

Resident Michael Westgate said the restoration of the boathouse to Chatham enjoys strong public support, and he’s confident the necessary funds can be raised to support the work. “I think it’s a bit of a miracle the building still exists,” he said.

The boathouse and its 300-foot pier were used to dock, shelter and maintain the Chatham Coast Guard's rescue boats until the 1970s, when it was decommissioned. At the time the town declined to buy the property and structure for $1; town officials also took no action to save the structure in 2009 when a new home was slated for the property. Doherty worked with marine contractor and part-time Chatham resident Jay Cashman to move the building to Quincy, where it sat until 2019 when it was moved to Hull. The building fell into disrepair there and was slated for demolition when Doherty and Cashman arranged to have it barged to Cashman’s boatyard in Quincy for temporary storage.