CHATHAM – When he was hired as park superintendent in November 1984, Dan Tobin worked for an elected park commission and had just one full-time staff member. Together with summer staff, they took care of the town's parks and beaches. The recreation operation was a separate department under an independently elected recreation commission.
Over the next decade, the department evolved and grew, first taking over maintenance of school grounds, and when the town's home-rule charter was approved in 1995, the park and recreation departments were merged under a single appointed commission. Things changed again in 2007 when the community center opened and was put under the operational control of Tobin and the park and recreation department.
“It's hard to believe nearly 15 years has gone by” since then, said Tobin. Over his years as a town department head, he's worked through and observed those and many other changes in town.
“There's probably been as much change in the time I've been here in Chatham town government than in the first 300 years of the town,” he said during an interview last week.
Tobin will retire after 37 years as head of the park and recreation department on Jan. 28.
Many of the duties he took on in 1984 after coming to the town from Manchester, Conn., remain in Tobin's portfolio, including overseeing beaches, parks and ballfields. But now he supervises a full-time staff of five from the office in the community center, a major step up from the DPW workshop on Crowell Road that serves as his first base of operations. He's also taken on the job of tree warden, an elected position prior to the charter, and his department also oversees the town-owned Seaside Links Golf Course, which is operated by a contractor.
The community center is much more of a focus of activity than the old community building which was located on Depot Road where the fire station is today. “The old community building really wasn't well used by the community,” he recalled. “It was good for kids to hang out, but there weren't many adult programs.”
Today, dozens of groups use the community center's meeting rooms on a regular basis and the gymnasium is an active place both weekdays and weekends. The facility allowed the summer recreation program to expand, and the after-school PARK program has kept the building busy weekday afternoons. The COVID lockdown slowed use of the building, which was closed for nearly a year during the pandemic, but, said Tobin, “we're beginning to get back to where we were. I hope going forward things ramp up again.”
During his tenure, the town created Volunteer Park in South Chatham, done mostly with the labor of volunteers and town department staff. The town's beaches have always been a major focus of Tobin's department.
“The beaches in a lot of ways are still like they were when I started,” he said, although Chatham's coastal processes have provided a glimpse into the impact of sea level rise, especially along the east coast. The park department doesn't oversee beaches along Chatham Harbor, however, focusing on the five public beaches along Nantucket Sound.
Three decades ago those beaches were wider and more heavily used. Today, massive amounts of sand are pumped onto them annual from dredges clearing shoals around the Stage Harbor entrance. Without that infusion, the beaches would degrade further, Tobin said, perhaps even endangering parking areas, especially at Cockle Cove. It's expensive, but it's the only way to maintain what are among the town's greatest assets.
Even as the town maintains the beaches, they aren't quite as busy as in the past, Tobin said. Year ago, the parking lot at Harding's Beach would regularly fill up in the summer, but that hardly happens at all anymore. He theorized that people are more aware of sun exposure and so don't stay at the beach as long.
“That really didn't come up much in my early days,” he said. It's also a challenge to recruit lifeguards every season, and this past summer it was even difficult finding gate attendants for the beaches.
And, of course, there are sharks here now.
“That's created new concerns that we have to manage for,” Tobin said. He credited cooperation between Outer Cape towns in creating safety protocols, providing training and trauma treatment equipment, and networking among officials and groups such as the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy with helping to keep the public safe.
“It's still evolving,” he said. “There's not the one silver bullet to keep every beach safe.”
Tobin credits the town with being forward-looking in preserving open space and investing in town infrastructure, which is “so much better than what we had.”
“You always feel good when you're part of something that makes things better,” he said, referring to Volunteer Park, the town's skateboard park, and programs such as PARK, which benefits the community's families. Other improvements that the department has been working toward include the ability to accept credit cards at beaches, he said.
Tobin's wife, Paula, the town's assistant town clerk, is also retiring. The couple, who live in Harwich, have no immediate plans, Tobin said, although after following a schedule driven by the calendar for many years, “to have a blank slate for a little bit is nice.”
“I'm looking forward to my first summer in 37 years when I can actually enjoy summer on Cape Cod,” he said.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said last week that she was still working on a transition plan for Tobin's department and expects to announce it this week. Her recently announced reorganization plan includes restructuring the park and recreation department, and she said in an email that she is revising the plan and will wait until it is implemented before filling the vacancy created by Tobin's retirement.