The Local Economy: A Lot To Work With, And A Lot To Work On

By: Ed Maroney

A new business on Main Street, Sean Shea’s by-appointment tattoo studio, represents one side of Orleans' economic picture. ED MARONEY PHOTOS

ORLEANS Close to 50 people gathered online April 27 for a workshop on the community’s economic strengths and challenges.

“The planning board recognizes the need for the town to be more active in planning for the future of our business districts,” board chairman Chip Bechtold said at the outset. “We intend to assemble an overall economic development plan for the town. The board wants to hear your ideas about what’s good and not so good about the local economy.”

The workshop was facilitated by staff from the Cape Cod Commission, which is working with the board to lay the groundwork for an economic development study that town meeting will be asked to fund. The regional land use agency is also helping the town apply for a grant that could offset some of that cost.

One of the four breakout sessions included housing authority member Barry Alper, affordable housing trust board chairman Alan McClennen, Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey, select board member Mefford Runyon, and the planning board’s Brian Sosner.

Under strengths, Meservey spoke of the “certain uniqueness of Orleans. Some of that is reflected in proprietor-owned businesses. We are not Middle America. There’s not a whole lot of franchises, not a sameness.” Runyon cited the natural environment, and McClennen noted that Orleans is the only community at the convergence of Routes 6, 6A, and 28. Sosner said the town’s commercial center and its location make it the “ideal hub” for the Lower and Outer Cape.

The history of the town, its institutions, such as the Cape Cod Baseball League and theaters, and the state-designated cultural district were other assets highlighted. Alper said local and regional cultural attractions convinced his wife and him to retire here. “We hated the suburbs,” he said. “And we’re not country people. This is an ideal location, like a European experience on the Cape.”

McClennen pointed out the town’s investment in sidewalk and intersection improvements downtown, to say nothing of the $60 million sewer system “which provides opportunity for businesses to expand over and above where they are today… In 1962, the town did the same thing to supply a water system downtown. Until that happened, things were fairly limited there.”

Sosner said the stability of the real estate market over the years has been a plus, and added that he’s seen “a very good change in attitude toward creating affordable housing and more diverse housing.”

Among perceived weaknesses, Runyon cited the relative lack of town support for marketing Orleans. He said Chatham and Provincetown earmark some of their rooms tax for their chambers of commerce to get the word out, while “Orleans argues about $30,000 a year for the chamber just to support the information booth.”

Meservey cited the seasonality of the marketplace as a challenge, and McClennen pointed to the cost of housing. If people are “cost-burdened” by housing, he said, they have less disposable income available to support local business. “The price of homes has skyrocketed,” Sosner said. “We’ve created a town that is rapidly skewing toward second home owners.”

The downtown and its businesses “suffer from poor traffic flow and too little parking,” Runyon said. Meservey cited “a lack of cohesiveness in our shopping areas. There’s a lack of nighttime activity.” Orleans, McClennen said, “does not have a walkable downtown. Yes, Main and 6A is focused on being walkable, but that is a very small percentage of opportunities to purchase in downtown.” The problem, he said, goes back to “our planning mistake” that allowed “filling cranberry bogs or cutting down woods to provide opportunities for large shopping centers outside downtown.”

Sosner said there’s “a perception that Orleans is just not open for business or as friendly for business as it should be… Consolidation of the regulation and approval process is probably warranted in Orleans.”

The internet was seen as both a plus and minus.

“It’s changed the possibilities for a healthy retail sector in downtown,” Runyon said. “If you want to be a retailer and succeed, you’ve got to be specialized and unique. You can’t be selling the same stuff you can buy on Amazon.” McClennen said the “opportunity to work remotely is a game-changer.” On his “pretty remote” street, he’s seen “baby carriages and young children for the first time in years” and learned that some families have moved here from cities, to stay. Sosner said they and others will need a strong fiber optic broadband network “that supports everyone.”

But “as we grow out our year-round population base,” Meservey cautioned, the town may not be able to handle the traffic. “The transportation network is not sufficient for 12,000 (twice the current year-round population),” he said. Runyon noted that the town’s conservation assets were “overwhelmed” as residents and visitors spent more time outdoors in the pandemic. “The COVID wave may recede,” he said, “but we were given a chance to look 20 years into the future to see what happens in this town as we build out. Those assets will be less appealing if we don’t find a way to control them better or add to them.”

Ward Ghory, a member of the affordable housing trust board who joined the discussion later, was concerned about “the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in this area. I do think that that discourages some (people) from wanting to raise their families here. It sets up an image of a town that is older and whiter that is not appealing to everyone.”

Runyon spoke about the need for an event venue for concerts, movies, and seminars that would attract people to local lodging, restaurants and shops while they’re in town. “We don’t have a movie theater,” he said. “We don’t have anything in the downtown that makes it (attractive) for you to stay around after you eat dinner instead of just going home.”

“If you want the wish list,” Sosner said, “you’ve got to be prepared to do something to support it. That’s what this economic development process is all about.”

A compilation of comments will be prepared by the Cape Cod Commission and posted on the town’s website.