On August 7, 1961, President John Kennedy signed the legislation to protect and manage about 44,000 acres of beaches, salt marshes, and kettle ponds on Cape Cod's outer coast. Today, the Seashore stands among the top-10-most-visited national park sites in the country. But as Sean Corcoran reports, when it first was proposed, opponents feared that the large, federally-operated park might stifle the Cape's growth and depress its economy.

Seashore Economics

Sean Corcoran
August 9, 2011

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WOODS HOLE, Mass. — Jim Baptist stands in front of what appears to be hundreds of inner tubes, colorful boogie boards and blown-up plastic sea animals as the steady traffic on Route 6 zooms by. The sign on the storefront says, Seaberry Surf Gifts, but that's not what the children call it.

"They call it the "floatie store.'," he said. "And every parent that comes in says, 'My kids, the first thing they want to do is go to the floatie store.' Even though it's Seaberry Surf Gifts, they know it as the floatie store. Which is really cool. It's a nice feeling when the families come back year after year and you see the kids growing up."

This colorful souvenir shop on Route 6 westbound in South Wellfleet has been in operation for as long as the Cape Cod National Seashore. Directly across the street is a nearly-identical shop, Rileys's T-shirt outlet, which sells nearly-identical floaties. With the Cape Cod Seashore boundary just a stone's throw away, there's enough demand for inflatable sharks and saltwater taffy to keep both tourist shops afloat.

"People would say, 'You've got your competition across the street. What are you going to do?'," Baptist said. "You get along, they're great people, and everybody does their business."

Although Park Service officials say that no one is certain of the exact dollar impact on the local economy from the National Seashore, Wendy Northcross of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce says the seashore's more than 4 million annual visitors contribute a sizable portion of the estimated one billion dollar in direct tourist spending. But ironically, when the Seashore was first proposed, many local business leaders opposed it.

"The Cape Cod Chamber came down in opposition to the concept, which sort of surprised me because it's been such a gem," Northcross said.

Rather than hinder the tourism-based economy, there's general agreement that the seashore has protected the Outer Cape's natural environment and boosted tourism.

"I would love to talk to some of those board members from the Cape Cod Chamber who 50 years ago said, Bad idea! I would love to know today how they think about that," Northcross said.

Provincetown author Josephine del Deo was part of a pro-Seashore group formed in 1959. P'town was considering turning over nearly 80 percent of town proper to the Park Service, and the debate was fierce over the Seashore's potential impact on the economy and new growth.

"The selectmen had to be concerned the tourism would not suffer," Del Deo said. "And there was great concern. And they just felt this whole thing would shut down and they wouldn't' have an opportunity to have any kind of power or control over territories that had traditionally been theres to do what they wanted to. For instance, in Wellfleet there was a proposal to develop all the back side in housing lots. The stakes was already there when the Seashore came in."

Those houses were never built. With the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore the Park Service stopped new home construction but allowed owners of the nearly 600 existing private home to keep and even and even sell their properties, as long as they agreed to limits on lot sizes and not to expand building footprints by more than 50 percent.

"The prior and consuming ethos of the Park Service has been, eliminate the structures, eliminate the people and restore the area to wilderness," Del Deo said. "In the case of the Cape Cod park, that's a fantasy that can never be realized. So they included this section called 'improved property', they could retain their properties in perpetuity provided they were built prior to Sept. 1, 1959."

Today, real estate brokers who sell properties on the Outer Cape say Seashore homes are highly sought, and the park's existence has pushed up the price of Seashore-sited property by 25 to 50 percent versus outside the park. For buyers, Seashore homes come with a guarantee that there will never be a new house next door. For Cape Cod's visitor-driven economy, the National Seashore promises to protect the very beaches and tidal lands that the tourists come to see.


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