With a town vote looming on whether to purchase the Home Port restaurant in Menemsha and turn it into municipal land, the long-running seafood restaurant closed its doors for the summer last Sunday, possibly never to reopen for business.
Meanwhile, two Chilmark innkeepers and restaurant owners have signed a new agreement with Home Port owners Will and Madeline Holtham to buy the property and keep the restaurant as a going concern if the town vote fails.
The back-up sale agreement with Robert and Susan Nixon, who own the Menemsha and Beach Plum Inns, casts the impending town decision on the Home Port in an entirely new light.
At a special town meeting scheduled for Sept. 22, voters will decide whether to buy the Home Port property for $2 million. Selectmen want to tear down the restaurant and turn it into a municipal parking lot with public rest rooms. The price tag is dramatically reduced from a $3.9 million offer in 2005, which had included an extra waterfront lot with a dock, and was rejected by voters.
If the town turns down the purchase for a second time, the Nixon agreement goes into effect.
Two warrant articles relate to the Home Port purchase: one asks voters to appropriate $2 million to buy the property and a second asks for $13,000 to cover a loan which would fund the purchase.
On July 29 selectmen signed a purchase and sale agreement with the Holthams to buy the property. The reduced offer is for the lot with the restaurant and two adjacent lots with waterfront access. It does not include an additional lot, historically used by the restaurant for staff and additional customer parking. That lot, which also has a dock, was sold to a private buyer.
The town plan has been spearheaded by selectman J.B. Riggs Parker, who negotiated the deal with the Holthams. The July 29 agreement was signed by Mr. Parker and selectman Warren Doty, who had previously voted again the Home Port purchase. Board chairman Frank Fenner, who owns The Galley restaurant across the road from the Home Port, abstained from the vote.
Selectmen aim to tear down the restaurant and construct additional public restroom facilities for Menemsha. According to the warrant the public space would provide public waterfront access, additional parking for the town and restore pond views.
A sketch of the plan can be viewed on the town Web-site.
The town purchase requires a two-thirds vote to pass. One town resident who will vote no is Mr. Nixon, who confirmed that he will attend the meeting.
In another twist on the story, a letter was sent to both Island newspapers supporting the town purchase of the Home Port; the letter is signed by 10 Chilmark residents and asks for private donations. (The letter was sent to the Gazette Thursday morning too late for publication. It will appear in the Tuesday edition.)
According to the letter, the $2 million purchase would cost taxpayers an average of $50 per assessed million per year for 20 years with a first installment of up to $63.
But one person who signed the letter said it predated any knowledge of the Nixon offer.
“We didn’t know of this plan at the time,” said the letter signer who did not want to be named. “Of course it changes things,” the signer said. Speaking from Chicago yesterday, Mr. Parker said he believed most of the signers knew of the Nixon offer in advance.
Robert and Sarah Nixon bought the Menemsha Inn in the late 1990s and the nearby Beach Plum Inn three years ago.
Reached by telephone yesterday, Mrs. Nixon said their agreement with the Home Port owners is “essentially the same” as the town agreement.
Mr. Nixon emphasized that the offer to buy the restaurant is a back-up plan and that the decision rests with Chilmark voters.
“We signed it as a back-up offer,” he said. “We want what’s best for Menemsha.”
However, both husband and wife are emphatically in favor of their plan.
“A restaurant is the best use of that space,” said Mr. Nixon, “The restaurant — it’s an integral part of the fishing port community. It provides jobs, property taxes, and an outlet for local fisherman,” he added.
“It hurts Menemsha to be gone,” agreed Mrs. Nixon, “Generations of kids worked there. People came from clear on the other side of town [to go to the restaurant].”
She added that parking issues alone shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
“If that’s really the problem let’s address that,” she said. “We need to get creative about it.”
On Wednesday morning the Nixons sent around an e-mail to friends and neighbors in town about the offer and said they had received an enthusiastic response.
“I can’t tell you how many responses we got [from the e-mail] this morning, saying ‘How can I help?’ ” Mrs. Nixon said.
The e-mail details their plans to continue to operate the Home Port and addresses the issue of the need for town parking spaces.
“[The property] should continue to allow daytime parking for the town, kayak access, hopefully be a much stronger outlet for locally caught fish and a resource for all of us,” the e-mail says.
Mr. Parker said he hopes voters back the town plan.
“I do think it’s more important that it’s town property,” he said, “The Home Port benefits a few people and this benefits the whole town.”
He added that with rising costs of running a business in a short summer season, passing on the restaurant may just be delaying the inevitable.
“It was difficult for the Holthams and in the long run it may not be a restaurant anyway,” Mr. Parker said. He added the town currently has several significant pledges of donations for the project, although he declined to say how much.
“I think it’s a good time for the town to get it. It’s the right thing to do with the property,” he said.