Salem is synonymous with witchcraft, Concord with the revolutionary war. But what is Oak Bluffs’ identity?
That question was put to community members and state officials recently at a public discussion about downtown improvement strategy. Leaders say the answer is crucial to the success of a downtown planning project that began this fall.
Last week, the selectmen voted to encumber $80,000 of funds in the Community Development Block grant program income fund to commission a study of the downtown area.
The study, ideally, will help develop a vision for the downtown. But first, that vision must be defined with the input of as many Oak Bluffs residents as possible, experts say.
During a visit to Oak Bluffs in November, downtown specialists stressed starting with a town brand, or a coherent design scheme for the town that might help market it to visitors.
A brand will tell visitors that they are in Oak Bluffs, and not in Edgartown or any other town on the Island, said Emmy Hahn, the downtown specialist with the state.
Dan Fortier, town planner in Dennis, said he’d researched the town to identify its distinctive qualities.
“One of the descriptions was that you are a town of nonconforming conformists,” he said. He added that the town’s competitiveness, within its bounds and with other Island communities, helped define it throughout its history.
He also pointed to the civil rights history of the town and its early legacy of integration.
“This is stuff you can use to try to turn yourself into, if not a year-round residential community, a year-round tourism community,” he said.
Selectman Gail Barmakian, who characterized the town as “funky,” said its primary resource is water, which must be protected in conjunction with any improvement efforts.
While locals can readily identify distinct characteristics of Oak Bluffs, much of the work may be to merge disparate visions.
“The look of Oak Bluffs is the fact that we don’t have one, that is what makes it so beautiful,” said Brian Packish, a member of the planning board.
Bill Engler, a brand and marketing expert, said giving visitors the gratification of finding their way on their own was important. “We want a sense of discovery,” he said.
The visit was funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development which pairs potential improvement sites with veterans of the revitalization process. Peer communities were identified in Hyannis and Dennis, where downtown makeovers have taken place in recent years, boosting local economies.
The visiting team also included consultants, whom Mr. Whritenour later referred to as the “who’s who of downtown development.” Wendy Landman represented Walk Boston, a pedestrian advocacy group, and Steve Cecil came from the Cecil Group, a design and planning company.
Before joining town business people for a discussion about downtown improvement, the team took inventory of the buildings and street-side features in town. The inventory will help the town secure funding for revitalization projects.
Going forward, the town will prepare a request for proposals for a planning consultant, who would begin work by listening to the desires and concerns of locals.
Town administrator Bob Whritenour stressed the collaborative element of the project. He described a shared effort from business leaders, community members and town officials who would work together to define improvement goals.
“We know that there is conflict between different viewpoints, [but] it is all about bringing everyone together to decide how we are going to be stewards of the community,” he said.
While the attendees appeared energized and committed to the well-being of the town, some stakeholders were not convinced that the downtown needs to be revitalized.
“Sure, the movie theaters look awful, but I think we have a lot of things to be proud of,” said Erik Albert, a member of the planning board.
“While we are fixing the broken stuff, we need to make sure we don’t break the working stuff,” Mr. Packish added.
Though it was held at midday on a weekday, the meeting drew a surprising number of business leaders. The consultants and state officials said they were impressed with the buy-in already evident in the community.
“This is an amazing turnout this afternoon . . . it does not happen in a lot of other communities,” Ms. Landman said.
“I love to hear the comments about the vision of the town because to fill a room with 50 people like us on a weekday at 1 p.m. is wonderful,” Mr. Whritenour said.