Fishing Sustains Chatham Economy

By Sean Corcoran

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A lobster boat floats in the waters off Chatham just before dawn. Unlike some historic Cape Cod communities, Chatham has retained its economic identity as a fishing town. (Brian Morris/WCAI)


CHATHAM, Mass. — Chatham owes just about everything it has to the fact it's located on the ocean. From its architecture — which, in many cases was based on buildings sea captains would find in other areas of the world — to its culture and tourism, the sea has helped keep the community fiscally strong, including during this recent financial trouble.

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Tourism has grown to be the primary industry since people first began vacationing in Chatham in the late 1800s. But what's somewhat remarkable is here's a community that's just one year shy of its 300th birthday, and for all of that time it's remained a fishing village.

Today, the population goes from just more than 6,000 over the winter to about 24,000 in the summer, with tourists and second-home owners. But fishing has never gone away, and there are fishing families in town that go back six generations or more.
 
How has fishing survived in Chatham while fading away in so many other communities? People in Chatham point to things such as its location near some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds. It's a small-boat port with lots of types of fish coming and going from the pier. And fishermen say Chatham puts a premium on preserving the industry, so it maintains the working waterfront and it puts the fishermen in the forefront.
 
Historian Mark Wilkins, executive director of the Atwood House, a town landmark where the historical society is located, talked about the relationship between tourism, Chatham's location, and its reputation as a home to fishermen.

Fishing boats are seen in Chatham's harbor. (Brian Morris/WCAI)

"It's a national hot spot," Wilkins said, "especially among summer people. It's a beautiful place. Beautiful bodies of water, dynamic landscape, and its sort of retained that very small town fishing village character. A lot of towns have not, but preservation is very active and enforced here of architecture, residential zones and this sort of thing. They've tried very hard to preserve the character of this town."
 
One of the reasons Chatham has remained largely financially stable has to do with the benefits it derives from fees: Beach fees, shellfishing fees and mooring fees, for example. With the help of these fees, for more than a decade the community has managed to avoid increasing the town's budget by more than 2.5 percent each year.
 
Its bond rating recently was raised to the highest available, making it less costly to borrow money. And its reserve fund remains healthy.
 
There have been financial issues to work through, as well as some layoffs since the financial crises began, but even those were mostly through attrition — not filling job vacancies. And through the turmoil of the past three years, the town has managed to keep the tax rate extremely low — one of the five lowest tax rates in the
commonwealth.
 
Despite the low tax rate and the high-end properties, residents here say it's important to remember that when the winter comes and the population drops, this is a real community, with retired folks, fishing families and people who make their living in the service industry. Taxes may be low, but the cost of living is high. So certainly in the winter the idea that Chatham is only home to the rich is just not the case.
 
But because of the town's strong financial standing, as other communities have moved to raise taxes, cut services and put off building projects during the financial crises. That mostly has not happened in Chatham.
 
Gerry Panuczak, the town's personnel director, says that, for the most part, Chatham has stuck to its capital plans, replacing or refurbishing almost all of its facilities in the past 10 years.
 
"So they redid town hall," Panuczak said. "They reconstructed the community center. We've got a new police station that will come online in June. We have a new annex facility, which is all the people who don't work in town hall, they work at the annes, and that is going to come online in June. We're planning for a new fire house."

The Stage Harbor Light in Chatham. (Brian Morris/WCAI)

Last week, the 2010 US census reported a loss of about 500 people in Chatham since the year 2000, bringing the population down to just over 6,100 year-rounders.

And what's notable is the loss among families with children. Chatham saw a 15-percent drop among people under 18 years old. And that speaks to perhaps the biggest problem Chatham faces — having enough kids for its school system.
 
In the 1990s, Chatham was the first school district on Cape Cod to implement the state's School Choice program, which allows students to attend school in other towns if there's room. And that's been good for Chatham.

Schools Superintendent Mary Ann Lanzo said the district has just under 700 students in total. And about 170 of them are School Choice. They come from as far away as Sandwich for a whole variety of reasons. And in return, Chatham gets $5,000 per student they from their hometown.
 
"Chatham is one of the few places over time that has really benefited from school choice economically," Lanzo said. "It has funded probably 10 to 12 percent of entire operating budget at this point. We have been in the first five in terms of standing in the state of funds for school choice."
 
But even with School Choice, Lanzo says the biggest threat to the quality of Chatham schools comes from having classes with not enough students.
 
"I'd say we weren't talking 10 years out it would have a major impact on students," she said. "I would say we're talking five years or four years. Because we wouldn't be able to have the advanced placement classes. We wouldn't be able to offer the array of remedial classes for students and programs."
 
To combat the declining enrollments Chatham and the neighboring town of Harwich have agreed to create a regional school system. But some people have questioned how that will work, considering that Chatham and Harwich have a history of being strong rivals.
 
Chatham has voted against regionalizing several times over the years. Back in the 1950s, the debates often came down to class and race issues. We haven't heard any of that this time. Instead, there has been lots of census talk, as well as the promise of saving Chatham taxpayers between $3 and $4 million annually by combining systems.
 
The district officially begins in 2012, and a new high school should open two years later. Already they're planning for a football team, thinking about a mascot — there's a real push to energize people.
 
Part of that effort came about last week when the kids went to the polls to vote on a name for their new school district.
 
What did they choose? Monomoy, after the Monomoy Regional School District, a Native American name, and a tribute to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge down there.



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