2011-06-02 / Front Page

Designer envisions outdoor arts at Fort Getty

By Phil Zahodiakin

Scanning the vacant hillsides at Fort Getty during a recent visit to the park, designer Mary Meagher sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jamestown. “Wouldn’t this be a great place to sit and listen to music?” she asks.

Meagher, who chaired the town’s Fort Getty Master Plan Committee, is a member of the Friends of Fort Getty, an ad hoc group, which hopes to assume an advocacy role similar to that of the Friends of the Philomenian Library.

Transforming one of Fort Getty’s waterfront hills into a venue for music and performing arts is just one of the many ideas Meagher thinks the town should consider for the park – the only one that Jamestown owns.

Jamestown residents were invited to offer, and vote for, their preferred ideas on May 19, when the town held a facilitated Fort Getty workshop. The amphitheater idea, which was supported by many of the workshop voters, is an old one, having first been proposed in 1994. A decision on an amphitheater has never been timelier.

The Town Council has indicated its support for major investments in the existing Fort Getty infrastructure. The Feb. 3 collapse of the John C. Rembijas Memorial Pavilion, reports of electrical shocks to the RV campers, and the RV campers’ complaints about the quality of their water underscore the pressing need for repairs.

The work will require major expenditures. Town officials estimate that it will cost $250,000 to replace the iron water main with PVC pipe. A “bare bones” replacement pavilion will cost about $300,000. Upgrading the electrical pedestals to deliver more amperage to the RV campers would cost $330,000. Moreover, the electrical upgrades will incur an additional $475,000 expense for associated water-pipe repairs.

Meagher points out that, a year after releasing its 2005 plan for the park, the Master Plan Committee was asked to assist the town with implementation efforts. But the committee, Meagher recalls, “sensed that Jamestowners’ attitudes toward the park were changing, and we were preparing a new survey for town residents when the current council discharged the panel in 2010.”

Town Planner Lisa Bryer alluded to the lingering impasse during the Fort Getty workshop by observing that the future of the park had reached a crossroads. Before committing more than $1 million to maintain the status quo, “We should consider what an opportunity we have before us,” Meagher said.

Over 80 percent of the participants in the Fort Getty workshop voted for “open space and passive recreation” as their most-preferred use of the park, with an amphitheater ranking 10th out of the 42 possible future uses identified by the 111 residents who voted on the options selected by workshop participants.

Meagher notes that many of the 42 proposed uses can coexist, including various types of camping. She also pointed out that facilities like a pavilion or a sailing center can do double duty.

“A sailing center is really a boathouse,” Meagher said, “and it should provide space for marine education.”

As she walked along the park road, Meagher reflected that “an amphitheater implies a structure, and the last thing we want in here is a miniature Roman coliseum. This park is one of the most unique and beautiful places in New England, and we should keep the structural footprints as few and far between as possible.”

The amphitheater proposed by the Fort Getty Re-Use Committee in 1994 was sited at the northern end of the park, not far from where, in 2009, a non-profit group proposed to build and run a sailing school.

The sailing school proposal died during the transition that followed the Town Council election of 2009. The current council has not re-visited the idea, but it wasn’t forgotten by the Jamestown residents who participated in the workshop and who chose a “sailing center” as the second-most popular idea for the future uses of Fort Getty. A marine education center came in as the ninth most-popular use.

Looking at the hill that slopes towards the water at the northern end of the park, Meagher points out that a boathouse or sailing center built along the base of the hill could easily accommodate a retractable awning and a “stage” structure, such as a masonry terrace or a deck. The sloping hill provides an area amenable to seating, which could be supplemented with temporary bleachers, Meagher said.

“It would be a perfect combination of uses,” she added, pointing out that the sailing center could accommodate backstage requirements while providing all-important bathrooms. In fact, year-round bathrooms at Fort Getty were the third most-popular idea at the workshop.

“Better bathrooms have been at the top of every Fort Getty plan since 1994,” Meagher said.

At the opposite end of the park, where a temporary tent stands over the concrete slab that had served as the floor of the Rembijas Pavilion, Meagher points to the hill overlooking the tent. The council has endorsed the base of the hill as a possible location for the replacement pavilion; and, like the sailing center, “a simple terrace to the west of a pavilion could serve as a stage along the base of the hill, with the lawn sloping up and providing seating away from the stage,” Meagher says.

The southern end of the park – especially the hilltop – is subject to prevailing southwest breezes during the spring and summer, and is typically more windy than the northern end. But either site “allows us to combine uses: performing arts and a sailing center on the northern end or performing arts and a pavilion on the southern end,” Meagher says.

She adds that the interior of the pavilion could accommodate food and refreshment stands set up by local merchants and restaurants, allowing them to participate in the commercial aspect of theatrical performances.

Meagher envisions audiences similar in size to Jamestown’s Sunday concerts, which were held on the Shoreby Hill green. Audiences like those would be about the same as the turnouts for established, offseason events at Fort Getty, such as the car show or the Lions Club’s Octoberfest.

Theatrical performances could provide substantial revenue for the town, Meagher says, and could coexist with other revenue producers. “But what’s most important,” she adds, “is allowing both our residents and visitors to enjoy this spectacular park in a way that has never been available to them.”

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