ORLEANS — The town’s present seems to be catching up with its future. Long-debated projects like the downtown sewer system are being built, and visions of better housing options are coming ever closer to reality.
Less than two weeks before town meeting, which decides whether plans will become projects, the Orleans Citizens Forum held a busy session May 10 that covered three warrant articles: the Governor Prence properties purchase, a downtown economic study, and a community center feasibility study. But before all that, Assessor Brad Hinote presented a look at the town’s tax base and its relationship with the local economy.
In Orleans, just 8 percent of the tax base comes from commercial, industrial, and personal property, the same split since 2016. For 2021, domiciled residents paid 37 percent of the tax levy, seasonal residents 56 percent, and businesses the remainder. By classification, only 350 acres remain for residential development and 24 for commercial, industrial, or mixed use. Almost half of the coastline has been developed for residences.
Hinote reported that Orleans, split 47.85 percent to 52.15 percent between domiciled residents and seasonal residents, “has very slowly crept towards increased year-round occupancy. The post-COVID work-from-home reality might have increased impact on this.”
The third leading commercial use in Orleans is storage, trailing retail and office and ahead of motels/inns. A point of local pride, “boat-related,” comes in at ninth. Another item of interest is Hinote’s list of the largest vacant commercial spaces, topped off by the “underground mall” along Route 6A. The top eight represent 60 percent of all vacant commercial space, but 80 percent of that “could be redeveloped or repurposed relatively ‘soon’,” Hinote observes, such as the Cape Cod 5 operations center (second) and the former Lobster Claw (seventh).
Also on the list, at fourth, is the Governor Prence, 5.5 acres of downtown land that town meeting can choose to secure for $2.9 million, including a significant contribution from the affordable housing trust. The action would set in motion an extensive public outreach and planning process to determine the most desired and suitable use or uses for the property, including affordable housing, community resources, or commercial enterprises.
Thanks to funds appropriated by the voters for an initial feasibility study, Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan said, town officials had enough information to bring the potential purchase to town meeting.
“Not to proceed means 5.5 acres of prime commercial property located in downtown along 6A and bordering the Rail Trail would be developed by others consistent with current zoning,” he said. “Abutters would be in a defensive posture. Likely, so would we as leaders of the town.” What if, he asked, a developer built 20 high-end rental units and “put demand on peak seasonal services and brought nothing to the town long term? We could also see a Dollar General store; it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
On the other hand, Galligan said, “purchasing the property preserves our town’s options and allows us to envision the possibilities.” He said doing so “would be in the same category, if not more so, in terms of the future of Orleans’s character and economy” as securing the town’s 500-acre watershed and holding on to Nauset Beach years ago.
Immediately following the Prence article on the May 22 warrant is a request for $35,000 for the community center feasibility study. Recreation advisory committee chair Tracy Murphy noted an initial survey of uses for the Prence properties, which received almost 800 responses, listed affordable housing and a community center as the top priorities. “We could do both if the feasibility study guides us,” she said.
The study would not be limited to looking at one site, or even at the idea of a single facility. Its purpose is to identify “community needs for people of all ages, abilities and interests, potential programming…and (collaboration) with neighboring towns.” Preliminary designs, site and staffing requirements, along with cost projections, would be part of the package.
Murphy stressed the importance of the all-ages approach. “It’s an opportunity to ask what the COA (Council on Aging) could do with more space,” she said, as well as to “take into consideration the too-often overlooked teenagers in town.” A community center would allow the town’s recreation programs for all ages to grow.
Growing the local economy is among the goals of the $60,000 downtown economic study on the town meeting warrant. That would pay for an economic development consultant “to study existing conditions in Orleans, evaluate market trends and recommend an overall economic strategy for the town… A successful business development strategy will lead to renewed commercial investment and broaden the non-residential tax base of the town.”
“The planning board noticed that the town appears less economically vibrant,” said Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey. “Internet competition is a big deal. Also, we’ve seen business development in other towns; we’re not the only game on the Lower Cape… Lots of owners are in pre-retirement periods, a time when you don’t necessarily make many long-term investments. In the next decade, we’ll see a lot of older owners decide this is the time (to sell). There will be ample opportunity for younger investors to try something in Orleans.”
Responding to questions about how to stage the work on Governor Prence, a community center study, and the economic study, Meservey said the economic development plan “is a long-term strategy. It’s worth taking the time to think through where Orleans wants to be 20 years from now. Our open space planning was done 20 years ago, and the town has (since) purchased pieces of property. The economic development plan probably takes place on the side while these two special area plans go forward. I would encourage the community center study to move forward first. You really need to know whether there are grounds to include that in the Governor Prence, and how it might work into the economic development plan earlier rather than later.”