From Fort to Park: the long and bumpy road
This is the second in a three-part series of edited excerpts from Nancy Masterton's 1990 report, “From Fort To Park.” In Part 1, readers learned how the town considered using Fort Williams as either a college campus or an “urban renewal project.” Both ideas progressed along dead-end paths. The town found itself back at the drawing boards and shaken by the split over what to do with the 90-acre parcel.
In this part, we learn about the remaining options considered by the town and how a consensus was developed to build a park. Part 2: Cape debates low-income housing vs. a science center for Fort Williams
By Nancy Masterton
[Edited and excerpted by Evan Roth with help from the CE Historical Pres. Society]
City Manager John Menario of Portland startled the Cape with the announcement in July, 1970 that the fort should be considered as a possible site for housing projects.
“Not to use the Fort Williams site is a tragedy in light of the present shortage… The time is come for Cape Elizabeth to shoulder other area problems… If we take the concept of COG (Council of Governments) seriously, this is the kind of situation in which we should use it.”
He promised to work up a draft resolution for the Cape. Cape officials were cool towards the proposal. Assuming that Menario was talking about low-income housing, Town Council chairman William Jordan said bluntly, “This is Portland’s problem and I can’t see why it should be pushed out to Cape Elizabeth. We don’t have the industry to offset low-income housing.”
Planning Board chairman Robert F. Hannigan responded, “To use the only prime land the Cape has left for what Mr. Menario suggests just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Said A. B. Conner, chairman of the town's Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), “It’s my opinion that families in that income range could not afford to live in housing built in Cape Elizabeth because of our rapidly rising tax rate.”
The Cape vetoed Menario’s resolution, but offered to cooperate with COG on area housing needs.
Maybe a science center?
Following the council’s veto of the Menario resolution, it had been approached by The Research Institute of the Gulf of Maine (TRIGOM), a consortium of the University of Maine and other Maine colleges, to use the fort for a scientific research center.
On Aug. 24, 1970, the council unanimously approved a study of Fort Williams for such a use, with William Dickson Associates as planners. The project was to be funded privately by Robert A.G. Monks and publicly by the Greater Portland Building Fund.
According to Dr. David Fink, Jr. of the university, the project was “not a big revenue-producing idea,”; but he predicted that it would eventually break even for the town. A long-term lease was to be negotiated. To administer the project, a new corporation, the Fort Williams company, would he formed, with a board representing the town, TRIGOM, and the business and scientific communities.
In January of 1971, the Town Council formally endorsed the TRIGOM concept, giving the organization one year in which to fund the project.
Almost a year later, and despite Gov. Curtis’ announcement of a New England Regional Commission planning grant of $75,000 for the project, TRIGOM was having difficulty raising money. In late December, 1971, the council passed a resolution down-grading its endorsement to “qualified,” but extended the fund-raising deadline for six months, and the effectiveness of the resolution to the end of 1972.
In September of 1972, a public informational meeting addressed the status of the TRIGOM plan. In an interview prior to the meeting, Fink conceded, “If I had to say what funds we’ve got right now, I’d have to say zero,” though he added that with Town Council approval, funding could be practically assured. “It is largely a question of what the town is willing to do as owner of the property to help make the project succeed.”
“MARINE COMPLEX HITS A DEAD END”, announced a newspaper article in January, 1973. The town turned down a draft lease for TRIGOM, explaining that the council “had seen no assurance of “the orderly development of a science park, its overall direction, the terms of a sublease, or a fair return.”
Two weeks later, TRIGOM was out of the development business, and the town was back to square one, sadder but wiser.
The consensus to create a park
The town appointed another committee, the Fort Williams Improvement Committee, on July 9, 1973. In September it brought forward a plan to burn and demolish the dilapidated buildings with the aid of the Cape volunteer fire department and the National Guard.
With the council's endorsement on Oct. 10, 1973, the town at last embarked on a project of its own to use the Fort for municipal and recreational purposes. Two new tennis courts were built with funds from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation.
That same year of 1974 saw National Guardsmen grading the field by the Portland Head Light, cleaning the cove area, and demolishing nine buildings.
On Nov. 25, 1974, the Improvement Committee was dissolved and still another Fort Williams Study Committee established. Its report was presented in June, 1976. It aptly pointed out that, although the town had had no clear policy regarding land use at the fort, and had been reactive rather than proactive, “a strong consensus has developed over the years that the Fort should first and foremost a park.”
The committee formulated the following broad policy:
“Fort Williams is a unique community resource which has irreplaceable scenic, natural and historical qualities. As such it should be dedicated to predominately park, recreational and cultural uses, which uses preserve or enhance, and are otherwise fully compatible with its unique qualities, and which uses are within the financial capabilities of the Town.”
The committee’s report concluded “that commercial or corporate development would not be feasible or compatible with the unique character of the Fort. On the other hand, the Committee felt that the development of a full ninety acre park would be feasible and within the financial means of the Town. It is estimated that the Town could maintain the entire Fort for approximately $13,000 more than is being expended each year…” An entrance or user fee was not thought warranted initially.
Courtesy of Nancy Masterton
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