NEVER NEVER LAND

Written By: Jason Graziadei | Photography By: Kit Noble

What is the future of Tom Nevers Park?

The twenty-five-acre Tom Nevers Park on the southeast shore of the island— what some consider one of the crown jewels of Nantucket’s public spaces— gets a grand total of four sentences on the town’s official website. The town describes it as “remote,” featuring “old pavement” with playground equipment that is “somewhat outdated.” Island resident Cheryl Emery is a little more blunt in her assessment. “It looks like crap out there,” she says.

Indeed, the park is at the former location of the island’s U.S. Navy base and it still bears a lot of that military utility. The two baseball diamonds are functional and continue to be used each summer, but are not in great shape. The old roller hockey rink built in the late 1990s is in disrepair. In June 2019, the playground equipment had grown so rusty and rundown, the Department of Public Works (DPW) put up yellow caution tape and then removed it. (New playground equipment has since been installed.) But the condition of Tom Nevers Park led Emery and a group of island residents to embark on their own mission to improve the beachside area.

The carnival, which has been defunct in recent years, was one of the few popular uses of Tom Nevers Field.

“It could be such a beautiful reflection of the community,” Emery said. “We need more programming and activities for kids.” Along with Jesse Dutra, Elisabeth O’Rourke and others, Emery—who at the time was serving as an appointed member of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission—held a forum at the community room of the town’s public safety facility and made the rounds to the Tom Nevers Civic Association and the Civic League and other groups. The presentations and listening tour became the basis of a plan to upgrade and improve Tom Nevers Park with new fields, tennis and basketball courts, a playground, ADA-accessible walking trails, shade structures and public restrooms. The old John F. Kennedy bunker, a relic of the Cold War that remains on the property to this day, would be opened to the public as a museum to showcase the history behind the subterranean structure.

In November 2020, those plans were largely adopted as part of the town’s Parks & Recreation Master Plan. Drafted by the firm Weston & Sampson, the plan calls for a phased approach to the improvements at Tom Nevers, starting with the new playground, parking, basketball courts, beach access and landscape improvements in the first phase. The preliminary estimated price tag in the master plan is between $4 million and $5 million for the first phase alone.

After the COVID-19 pandemic put plans for any major town project on hold, municipal leaders are now looking ahead to 2022 and the potential for funding capital projects, including the initial work at Tom Nevers. “We’re trying to work these projects into our capital improvement plan,” said Town Manager Libby Gibson. “The phases [of the Tom Nevers project] need to get into that plan.”

With Nantucket Police Department Chief Bill Pittman suggesting that the Boston Pops on Nantucket—the island’s largest summer event— be moved from Jetties Beach to Tom Nevers Park, the improvement plan for the area will likely be moved to the front burner in the coming year.

But still, there are several factors working against the project as proponents look ahead to 2022. Number one is that the DPW, which currently oversees all of the island’s parks, recently lost its director, Rob McNeil, who resigned from his post in late July. The fact that the department is in charge of the island’s recreational areas to begin with is another bone of contention that came to a boil in June at the island’s annual Town Meeting. The town has not had a formal parks and recreation department since 2010, and some have said the DPW’s wide range of responsibilities beyond the parks has left them without the attention they deserve. “The whole park system is broken,” Emery said, “because we don’t have a parks and rec department. There’s no budget, no money; it’s all been stripped away.” That will change soon, however, after island resident Maria Zodda sponsored a warrant article at Town Meeting to reinstate the position of parks and recreation director in municipal government. The proposal was approved in a landslide vote, and the town is now undertaking the process of redefining the new role, advertising the position and initiating the hiring process.

Cheryl Emery standing at the entrance to the JFK bunker in Tom Nevers.

Yet even when the DPW has leadership again and the parks and recreation department gets resurrected, the costs associated with the project could pose another challenge. The cost of construction and building materials has soared in the past year, meaning the original $4 million to $5 million estimate for just the first phase of the project is most likely going to be revised upward. But proponents are still hopeful that after years of work and now long-awaited recognition by the town that improvements to Tom Nevers Park should be a priority, their vision for this underused property will come to fruition.

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