As the summer season comes to a close, business owners in Oak Bluffs begin to reflect on the season, its successes and failures. And they start to plan for next season.
Representatives of town government and the Oak Bluffs Association have also begun a discussion of the summer’s economic performance.
“Once the season is over, after this benchmark weekend with Labor Day, we will have time and we will start thinking about how we all affect each other and we will go forward and do some projects that will help the town,” said Dennis daRosa, president of the business association.
While by some accounts August brought some of the best business the Island has seen in years, some say business in downtown Oak Bluffs suffered due to the presence of vacant buildings on Circuit avenue, the main commercial street in town. In response, town officials and business people have begun a dialogue about possible revitalization initiatives. The topic will likely make the warrant for some kind of discussion at a fall special town meeting set for Nov. 12.
“I think we are excited about an uptick in the Island’s economy this year, and we want to run with it, we want to move forward,” Mr. daRosa said.
A few prominent downtown buildings stood empty this summer, including Seasons Eatery and Pub, the former home of B. Tru, the future home of the Edgartown National Bank, the former home of Deon’s restaurant, and the two movie theatres at the foot of the avenue.
In the case of the Island theatre and the bank, construction that was slow to begin in the off-season was left unfinished when a summer construction prohibition went into effect in June. The Island theatre, built circa 1915, has stood roofless for three months awaiting repairs.
Town administrator Robert Whritenour has formed a task force of town officials, business affiliates and a representative of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to address ways to revitalize Circuit avenue. Selectman Walter Vail, chairman of the board, suggested that the town adopt a bylaw that outlines minimum standards for maintaining buildings in town. Last week, Mr. Whritenour convened the beautification team to discuss wording for a possible bylaw. “The existence of blighted or vacant buildings impacts not only the property values of the area but also the reputation and integrity of the town and its commercial districts,” reads the purpose statement of the draft zoning bylaw. The draft bylaw goes on to outline property maintenance requirements for buildings in the commercial districts B-1 and B-2, to be enforced by town building inspector. The bylaw would create a registry of vacant buildings in order to track their maintenance, and prevent further deterioration, Mr. Whritenour said.
Mr. Vail’s particular interest is the pair of movie theatres which have not shown films throughout the summer and are in need of repairs. Mr. Vail said they were in “miserable condition.”
“From my standpoint, I would really like to see the Strand and the Island theatres reopened,” he said at a recent selectmen’s meeting. “We are going to keep working to get them open again; by golly, we are going to do it.”
In past summers the theatres brought in evening crowds in the hundreds, which increased foot traffic into stores and restaurants on Circuit avenue, Mr. daRosa said. He hopes at least one of the theatres will be reopened in time for spring.
Benjamin Hall, who manages the buildings on behalf of the Lucky Seven Realty Trust, said in June that he intends to resume work on the Island theatre when the construction ban is lifted this month. “We are hoping that it can be reconstructed and can be used as a theatre again,” he said at the time.
Mike Santoro, a selectman and member of the business association, has compared the current state of the avenue to Main street in Vineyard Haven a few years back, where some buildings stood empty during the summer months. “Just as Vineyard Haven went through it a few years ago and came out of it, Circuit avenue is going through it as well,” Mr. Santoro said at a recent selectmen’s meeting. He suggested that Oak Bluffs look to their down-Island neighbor for ideas about how to achieve revitalization.
Mr. Whritenour said state and federal money may be available to improve the appearance of Circuit avenue. For example, there are federal grants available to towns for streetscape improvements through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said. Alice Boyd, who administers grants for the town, has begun to put together an inventory of grants available to the town for beautification purposes.
“We look forward to a very strong and lasting partnership between the town and the [business association],” Mr. Whritenour said. “If there is anything the town can do to bring in resources, to help promote the business community, we are going to use those to try to help beautify our town.” He is hopeful that such a collaboration will help “create partnerships and bring people together.”
Mr. daRosa echoed the sentiment. “We want to be more proactive with the selectmen, with the town, about issues of parking, issues with the sidewalks, and overall issues with Circuit avenue, to make it more of a pleasant shopping experience.”