Ambitious Vision for Downtown Edgartown

By MIKE SECCOMBE

The old Navigator restaurant in Edgartown - she ain't what she used to be.

And for all the survivors of overpriced watered-down cocktails and stuffed quahaugs that landed in the stomach like a lead sinker on a codfish rig - that may not be such a bad thing.

On Wednesday morning, building owners Gerret C. Conover and Thomas E. LeClair settled back in their chairs in the large, tastefully spare room which is their sales office, overlooking a foggy Edgartown harbor already alive with the sailboats and private yachts that signal the start of summer in this town of stately old whaling captain homes and rose covered fences.

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The two men are at the forefront of plans to rebuild the Navigator into a mixed use building that will eventually include a public restaurant and retail shops on the ground floor and a private club on the second floor. The private club will be linked with a second private recreation facility at Katama named the Field Club.

Their development vision is rendered in handsome color drawings, schematics and scale models all around the room.

Dressed in matching white sneakers and khaki shorts, they appear tanned and relaxed - hardly the demeanor you'd expect considering the year's work they have ahead of them.

The regulatory hurdles have all been cleared and construction is set to begin on the Navigator and Field Club projects in early September. Plans call for completing the Navigator and most of the Field Club before next summer. The total cost for both projects, including land acquisition, is estimated at about $30 million.

A table nearby is stacked with glossy brochures describing club membership. So far, they have sold about 100 memberships. That's still a long way from a stated goal of 400 memberships, but they say they are pleased, especially considering the memberships were all sold before the project had cleared a long and tangled regulatory process on numerous fronts.

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They are still a couple of months away from pulling building permits; a closing is set for the purchase of the land at Katama in about three weeks. A plan to provide valet parking has been problematic - but they're working on it - and they have been forced to close the Navigator for the summer season as things are running about six months behind schedule.

But despite any setbacks and months of public meetings where they feel they have not always received a fair shake in the press, Mr. Conover and Mr. LeClair remain enthusiastic about their club development are keen to share their vision, not only for the club but also for a broader revival of Edgartown.

"This is the perfect time [to talk] now that we're fully permitted and we're starting construction," Mr. Conover said. "Obviously we'd hoped to be where we are now six months ago but because of the way the permitting time-frame played out, one thing had to be knocked off before you could go to the next," he added.

"We hate the thought that the Navigator's not open this summer," said Mr. LeClair.

"We were its biggest patrons," added Mr. Conover.

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There is much to be done. At the Navigator between now and the end of the season the work will all be internal - kitchen equipment and nonstructural fixtures will be removed - so the major structural work can begin in mid-September.

It will be a heavy renovation. Most of the second floor will come down and there will be all new rooflines. The end result will be a building set further back from the street and the water.

"Simply by pulling this building back a little bit, widening the sidewalk, putting in street lanterns and trees, it's going to connect Main street to the harbor," said Mr. LeClair. "It's going to continue the pedestrian flow not only down the street but to a nice harbor walk around this building."

The Field Club, which will be sited in the center of a residential project at Katama and now in the early stages of development by another group of businessmen, will be built at the same time, but may not be fully finished by next summer.

"It is our plan to concentrate on the things we can have open next summer. All the tennis, paddle tennis, lawn games, the health club, we hope to have open by the summer of '08. We hope to have whatever's left - wherever we fall short - finished the following year," Mr. Conover said, adding:

"We don't want to over-promise but we'll hit it hard and all simultaneously. It's important to us to is to structure this thing so we do it right out of the gates the first time. It's not a phased project."

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And as if the Navigator and the Field Club were not enough, they acknowledge that they have other projects on their mind in downtown Edgartown.

An option to buy the Shiretown Inn property recently expired but may become live again, depending on what happens during a review that current property owners must go through before the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

Some kind of an agreement with the Hall family to take over the Yellow House at the corner of Main and Summer streets, which has sat unused and in a state of crumbling disrepair for four years - is in the final stages, they said.

They also own the former Chadwick Inn on Winter street.

"It's a nice property; it's in B1 [the town business district]. So we acquired it, having flexibility. We don't know exactly what we're doing there yet, but the old house is really a neat house," Mr. Conover said.

The two men worry about their town. The shoulder seasons are getting shorter and town businesses struggle to store up enough financial fat in the short summer to last them through the long winter.

"It's very difficult to make the numbers work in such a short season," said Mr. Conover, adding:

"This building [the Navigator] is going to be open for shoulder season events. It will do great things for our town, our community. Weddings, town events and charity events that everyone will enjoy. This building is the first real good example of taking an older building which really needed a major financial infusion."

But not the last.

"The 30 founding members who put up almost all the money for this project, some of them are helping us with other projects, like the Yellow House," Mr. LeClair said.

"We all know there was more vibrancy in this town 20 years ago than there is today. We're hoping to reverse that," Mr. Conover said, concluding:

"We have no overall master plan as such. But the commercial base of this town is crucial."