Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park at 40: Too much of a good thing?

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CAPE ELIZABETH — With Fort Williams nearing its 40th anniversary as a public park, town officials say there is a need to develop a long-term plan to address the future of the popular coastal attraction.

As the Town Council on Oct. 5 accepted a report from the Fort Williams Park Committee about putting an amphitheater project on hold, councilors said the future of the 90-acre park should be looked at more broadly.

Their consensus was influenced by feedback from residents, who say they are concerned about the impact on the park of the large number of visitors it attracts each year.

“I think we’re headed towards a larger discussion of the park,” Councilor Jessica Sullivan said. “Now is the time, given all that we’ve been hearing, to just step back and take a look, and then proceed after we have public comment.”

The Fort Williams Park Committee on Sept. 15 decided to stop moving forward with the amphitheater project that had been proposed for near the park’s softball diamond. Many residents had concerns about the cost of the project, as well as an increase in both noise and park visitors that could come with the amphitheater.

With those concerns, and the 40th anniversary of the decision to make Fort Williams a public park approaching on Oct. 25, “it struck me as a good time for retrospection, as well as introspection … about where the park is,” Town Manager Mike McGovern said.

McGovern said the council should consider hiring someone to oversee park operations and policies. Public Works Director Bob Malley is now responsible, but, with his other duties, the park may not receive the attention it needs, McGovern said.

He also said the town should hold a forum to get input from residents about what they’d like to see in the park’s future, but the forum shouldn’t focus on one specific idea or proposal.

“It should be real, from the grassroots in terms of what folks’ thoughts are,” McGovern said.

Finding out whether a majority of residents have true concerns about the number of visitors coming to the park is important, he added.

“There’s a lot of talk of overcrowding,” McGovern said. “Is that a concern with citizens? If so, what do you think you ought to do about it?”

‘A victim of our own success’

Making the park available for everyone has been important to Cape Elizabeth residents. Initiatives to require an admission fee or charge for parking at the park have failed. The town has put the question of parking fees to voters twice, in 2006 and in 2010; it was defeated both times.

“It’s nice the way it is without admission,” Scarborough resident Donald Day said this week at the park. “This is for tourists and local people.”

Diane Day agreed with her husband, and said she likes the many recreational activities the park offers. She acknowledged that, in turn, more attractions draw more people.

“I don’t come as much in the summer because of tourists,” she said.

Town Councilor Sarah Lennon said having a large number of tourists isn’t a bad problem to have.

“We’re a victim of our own success,” she said. “We’ve made the park so good that it’s being overrun by people who want to visit it.”

Anecdotal increase

Whether Fort Williams Park has seen an increase in visitors can’t be proved quantitatively, because the town doesn’t track the number of people who visit.

Malley said the last time attendance was tracked was in 2009, when the Greater Portland Council of Governments did a study showing the park had 900-1,100 cars a day from June to September, with most staying one to two hours.

According to town budgets, however, park revenue has been increasing over the past several years. In 2010, the cost to run the park was $158,000 and it generated $28,000 in revenue. Last year, the operating cost was $224,000, with revenue of $182,000.

Of last year’s revenue, $59,000 came from museum ticket sales, according to Jeanne Gross, director of the museum and gift shop at the park. She said almost 30,000 people visited the museum last year, and the number of visitors has been increasing more than usual over the past few years.

“There’s been an increase in the number of people on cruise ships, so the excursions to the lighthouses have increased,” Gross said.

Good weather this summer has been cited by many town employees and officials as the main reason for the recent increase in visitors.

“The weather has been fantastic since Memorial Day,” Malley said.

The Public Works director said other factors include the number of recently retired people who want to travel more, along with low gas prices this summer. He called the three positive trends a “trifecta” that contributed to the number of people coming to Fort Williams.

“The amount of usage in the park this summer was extreme,” Fort Williams Park Committee member Chris Straw said. “I think all of us, rightfully so, felt ‘my God, the park is really seeing a lot of usage. We really need to figure out how to deal with this.'”

‘Global’ view

Councilors on Oct. 5 acknowledged the importance of creating strategic long-term goals for Fort Williams Park.

“These are really, really big issues, and I think we should celebrate it, and then we should say, ‘OK, how do we want to poise this going forward?'” Lennon said. “It’s really a look going 10 or 20 years forward.”

The council hasn’t set a date for the public forum McGovern suggested. The council also plans to hold off on hiring a park manager until a new town manager is hired, which will be after McGovern retires Dec. 31.

The Town Council also decided on Oct. 5 to ask the Fort Williams Park Committee to update its list of capital improvement priorities.

Straw said the committee will be involved in discussions about the park’s future, and members understand the complexity of the issue.

“We’re trying to grapple with how to deal with this,” he said. “That’s an issue that’s going to be much larger than us.”

Lennon agreed, and said the Town Council needs to ask itself, “What do we want the park to be?”

Sullivan said the key will be “stepping back and taking a global look at the park as a whole.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

The Town Council has decided to consider a long-term plan for Fort Williams Park, after hearing residents’ concerns about the number of visitors, many of whom arrive on tour buses or trolleys. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)

Cape Elizabeth may hold a public forum to gather input on whether residents think Fort Williams Park has become overcrowded, and to hear ideas and thoughts about the park’s future. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.