2017-09-29 / Front Page

Slate of fort issues to be addressed

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – A dedicated park ranger, passing management of the park off to a third-party, requiring tour bus operators to pay higher fees or make advance reservations to use the park, imposing an entrance fee for visitors and undergoing a traffic study: those are some of the suggestions aired last week when the town council and the Fort Williams Park Committee came together to figure out ways to better manage Fort Williams Park.

The 90-acre park, which the town has owned since 1993, is managed by the Department of Public Works, along with the facilities department and a host of volunteers and community groups.

“It’s a daunting task with all of the other responsibilities under the public works umbrella, but it always seems to come together,” said Public Works Director Bob Malley.

“It’s not just public works. There are a lot of hands helping out,” he added.

That’s not to say a change isn’t in order.

“I don’t think the park is mismanaged, but I think it could be managed better. There is a lot of demands on the park and a lot of demands on my time,” he said.

Councilor Jessica Sullivan said she would like to see the town hire a dedicated park ranger to oversee maintenance and management of the park. The request she said will be included in the fiscal year 2019 budget and the cost of the position and responsibilities of the individual will be ironed out between now and then.

“I think personally the time has come for that individual,” Sullivan said.

The arrangement would be similar to how Thomas Memorial Library is managed. Library Director Kyle Neugebauer leads day-to-day operations while the Thomas Memorial Library Committee deal with policy and governance issues.

“It’s less complicated than the park, but I think it’s a good parallel for the structure,” she said.

Suzanne McGinn, a member of the Fort Williams Park Committee, said she would favor one organization being tasked with the management of the park because in some cases the groups that are involved can’t reach a consensus about things such as bus fees or how to manage invasive species. Committee member Chris Straw favors the park manager approach, but said a similar technique has been used for Central Park in which the city of New York has outsourced all park management to a nonprofit (Central Park Conservancy).

Committee Chairman Mark Russell said his group has not had much of a chance to talk about the future of the park and how it could best be managed because much of its monthly agendas are taken up with discussions on buses, fencing, Little League teams, dogs or vendors.

“We haven’t reached a consensus because we haven’t had a chance to talk about this,” he said.

Garvin said a park ranger, if hired, could handle some of the more administrative tasks that the Fort Williams Park Committee takes on.

Before she can make a decision on the future management structure of the park, Councilor Sara Lennon said she would like to know how many of the people who visit the park are from town, from Maine or from elsewhere, how much taxpayer money is used to fund park operations and how much revenue from the park the town takes in.

“It’s my thought that the revenue we are taking in is not keeping up with the wear and tear of the park and Cape Elizabeth residents make up the difference through tax dollars,” she said.

According to fiscal year 2018 numbers, the town expected to spend $313,635 from the Fort Williams Park Capital Fund. Malley said the town typically takes in $190,000 to $200,000 from rentals, retail leases, bus and other user fees and donation boxes. Committee member Donald Clark said that revenue includes $50,000 in tour bus fees.

That money, Malley said, is put into the account for improvement projects in the park.

Russell said the first priority in terms of capital improvement is safety.

“We aren’t just building pretty things,” he said.

Since the park has multiple streams of revenue and multiple entities doing work in the park, Garvin said the conversation is not as simple as looking at what the town takes in versus what it spends in the park.

Straw said the committee could look at traffic coming into and out of the park, but that will only tell them so much as to where motorists are from. They would be able to tell if a car has a Maine plate, but can’t determine what community the driver lives in, but could, if people had a recycling center sticker on the car, figure out if it is a Cape Elizabeth resident or not. Not all residents, however, use recycling center stickers.

“We would love to have that data and would love help collecting that data,” he said.

It is imperative, Lennon and other councilors said, to have public input about the future of the park.

“We need the most resident input we can get in the least expensive way possible as soon as possible,” Lennon said, advocating for sending a survey to residents to gauge what issues they see in the park and what their longterm vision for the property is.

One of the biggest concerns addressed by the council and committee is overcrowding at Fort Williams and the toll it takes on the physical condition of the park. It is not uncommon to see cars parked on the grass along roads or a steady stream of trolleys and buses traveling down Shore Road in the fall full of cruise ship passengers.

Roger Rioux, who has lived near the park for 43 years, said the struggle that exists is there there is no enforcement for parking, littering and other issues. He said he and his wife go into the park with trash bags to clean it up.

Over use is not just found in Cape Elizabeth, however. Overseers of Acadia National Park, and other places throughout the state, have found themselves in a similar position.

“We aren’t the only town with a place everybody wants to see, so how do other towns deal with this,” Lennon said.

The amount of traffic to the park is being driven by Fort Williams and Portland Headlight being listed on tourism websites and lists of places to see in Maine.

“There are a lot of reasons people are coming to Fort Williams. This is a unique place and if you look at things to do in greater Portland, two or three of them are in Fort Williams,” Russell said.

The scenic beauty, Russell said, is what attracts people to the park, “but what it boils down to is how much do we want to share this with people.”

Cape Elizabeth residents have been adamant in the past to have Fort Williams continue to be free to enter for individuals, but committee member Jim Walsh said times have changed and that decision, so too, may change.

There are entrance or parking fees for many places, including town beaches and parks. Naples and Standish, for example, limit their town beaches to only town residents, whereas places like Scarborough, Kennebunk and South Portland charge higher fees for nonresident beach passes or boat launch fees.

“All the beaches have a fee. We give it away for free. Right or wrong, we give it away. That is a decision we have made as a town,” Russell said.

Whatever decisions the council reaches in terms of managing wear and tear on the park will not be easy.

“We are going to have to make some tough decisions or else we’ll trash the place we are trying to save,” Lennon said

Sullivan said Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor recently required tour buses to make reservations before they can enter the park to help park rangers better understand how many vehicles and visitors will be coming to Acadia at a given time. Cape Elizabeth, she said, could adopt a similar system.

“There are lots of people locally and all over the world using the facility and we need to get a control on that,” she said.

Other solutions to raise the money needed to properly take care of the park could be to charge an entrance fee or bump up the fee tour buses pay to come to Fort Williams. Lennon said there is a difference between those using the park for their enjoyment and those profiting from the park (tour buses).

“The bus thing is huge. It is different and it’s highly intrusive,” she said.

Clark said any operational or management change, including the introduction or increase of fees, by the council could adversely impact other groups that are working to preserve the park, such as the Fort Williams Park Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds from donors all over the area for park improvements or the vendors and gift shop, which both live off proceeds from tourists and visitors.

Fees will generate more money for park maintenance and management, but as Garvin said, may not solve the overuse issue or reduce the amount of vehicles coming and going from the park.

“I strongly believe doing one thing over here is not going to solve this other thing over there,” he said.

Russell said although it was not discussed much at the joint workshop, another issue that plagues the park is the advance of invasive species, especially several variety of nonnative plants and the winter month that, in numbers, strip trees bare of their leaves.

“I think you have to look very deeply at this,” he told councilors.

This discussion, and the next steps for park management, councilors and committee members agreed, will be the topic of future workshops and meetings between the two groups.

Whatever is decided, the goal is to position Fort Williams better for the future and protect the scenic beauty on the property.

“We need to look toward the future to make sure it stays the beautiful place it is and we all enjoy so much,” Garvin said. “It is certainly one of the crown jewels on this community.”

Rioux said in order to do that, the council has to connect with all the park’s stakeholders, including taxpayers, school staff and town staff, athletic teams, visitors, Fort Williams Foundation, Beach to Beacon officials, entertainers and food vendors, neighbors and others who use the park.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 237.

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