PROVINCETOWN — A sleeper project since 2016, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center burst into the limelight on March 8 when the select board recommended a 9,500-square-foot building at the base of MacMillan Pier with public bathrooms, meeting space, and interpretive displays.
Conrad Ello of Oudens Ello Architecture of Boston, whose credits include the Eastham Public Library, will now refine the conceptual design and bring back to the town a cost estimate for the construction in about a month, according to project manager Anne-Marie Runfola, who works for one of the town’s partners on the project, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Board members expressed some surprise at the presentation by the project partners, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, the nonprofit Center for Coastal Studies, and town staff. The building will have a big impact on the waterfront, said select board chair David Abramson. It also seemed to get to this point with little public input, he added.
“For something this big on the waterfront we need to get more feedback from the public,” said Abramson. “I wonder if we have not done enough outreach.”
In fact, said Runfola, the pandemic did hamper the steering committee’s ability to reach the public. On Nov. 12, the Independent reported on a socially distanced outdoor kickoff event, but it was held on a rainy October day, said Runfola, and was not well attended.
The plans have been progressing slowly for years. In 2016, special town meeting voters raised $17,000 for a feasibility study for a visitor center. In 2017, voters raised another $25,000 for location and conceptual design work, which included hiring the architect. The Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary, which is one of 13 sanctuaries in the U.S., contributed an amount equal to the town’s for feasibility and design work, Runfola said.
“It is going to loom very large out there,” said Lise King of the select board.
The 39-foot height will include 6.5-foot risers, since it’s in the flood zone. The applicants will need a variance to exceed the town’s 33-foot height limit, said Ello. The building would eliminate 55 to 60 parking spaces, costing the town about $137,500 (based on average revenue per space of $2,500).
During the draft design phase, locations and renderings were seen by 100 people through presentations on the Center for Coastal Studies website, Runfola said. Four options were winnowed down to two: the one the select board favored and another, called “the pavilion,” which would be on the Ryder Street side of the MacMillan lot, by the current bus stop. The pavilion option would also transform the bus stop area into a park, Ello said. But the 100 who viewed earlier presentations and the select board preferred the more traditional architecture of the long, two-story building by MacMillan Pier.
Select board member Louise Venden, a member of the visitor’s center steering committee, said this is an exciting opportunity to present the wonders of Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau that is a smorgasbord for marine mammals and a vital fishing ground for all of New England.
“If we were able to get this visitor center it would be so fitting and so appropriate” said Rich Delaney, president and CEO of the Center for Coastal Studies. “It would serve as a catalyst to expand and add to the critical mass to bring Provincetown toward a center for excellence in research.”
Rex McKinsey, the town’s marine coordinator, said that, besides being a place for learning, the visitor center would replace the rundown public comfort station at the parking lot and offer electric car charging stations.
According to the feasibility study done in 2017, there would be no charge to enter the center, but revenue equaling 42 percent of the $593,000 operational budget is projected from renting out spaces to educational groups.
Ultimately, the town, the Center for Coastal Studies, and NOAA would share in the maintenance, staffing, and programming of the center through a memorandum of understanding, Runfola said. Typically, with visitor centers elsewhere, the host town owns the building itself, she said.
But just how exactly will the building be built and who will pay? Runfola said it is likely the town, the Center for Coastal Studies, and NOAA would all contribute, adding that a lot depends on a future federal budget.