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Unrealized vision at a former Cape Cod military site

A 2016 video shows the former North Truro Air Force Station from above.

By MARY ANN BRAGG | Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass. | Published: November 27, 2018

NORTH TRURO, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — As workers replace and add chain-link fences around rotting dormitories and graffitied ranch houses at the old North Truro Air Force Station, officials agree that a plan for a vibrant cultural center has gone nowhere.

"The intent and grand vision has yet to be realized," Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said about the 110-acre abandoned military site the Seashore acquired back in the mid-90s.

The vision that emerged by the early 2000s of the old base being transformed into the Highlands Center, a hub of science, art and education, with a dozen local nonprofits moving in, has thus far resulted in only one nonprofit maintaining a home there: the Payomet Performing Arts Center.

But in a recent interview, Carlstrom, who started his job with the Seashore in April, touched on a use for the old base long-discussed in local town halls: housing.

"The Seashore is interested in looking into public, private partnership possibilities for the Highlands Center area that could include seasonal housing," Carlstrom said.

In the past two years, community leaders in Truro and Provincetown have also called for new possible uses for the Highlands Center, including affordable housing.

A $240,000 chain-link fence upgrade to prevent vandalism and injury is currently underway at the property, Carlstrom said. The 5,700 feet of new fencing — much of it replacement but some of it new — will only be as high as the previous fences, and about 10 feet of brush and trees has been cut on each side of the fence line, he said.

On a recent damp Tuesday, the tree and brush clearing, rolls of new fencing, and stacks of new silver fence poles, seemed only to highlight the failed vision for the Highlands Center and the bleak landscape existing in its stead. Inside the new fencing are rotted and empty barracks, officers' quarters, a dining hall and theater, an overgrown basketball court, an overgrown children's playground, and a hulking and long-abandoned operations building. There are also about 18 empty ranch houses with busted windows and graffiti sprayed across walls.

In the past three years the Seashore has obtained money to demolish two old dorms and the old central heating plant, both with asbestos contamination, and several of the ranch houses, which have foundations tainted with pesticide.

"It's a big and complicated issue," said filmmaker Fred Schilpp, of Barnstable, who was among the leaders of the dozen groups that intended to dive into the Highlands Center concept back in 2002. But within four or five years of the initial excitement and optimism about the potential for the center came a sense that the hurdles there were too overwhelming, Schilpp said.

To start, one of the central nonprofits to be involved, the Center for Coastal Studies, decided to keep its headquarters in Provincetown, he said.

"That was a big blow," he said. "Another problem was asbestos and the cost of redoing those buildings."

When the Seashore obtained the property there were about 90 buildings. As it turned out, infrastructure such as electricity, plumbing and more had to be redone, so much so that what looked like inexpensive, move-in property became a tear-down headache, Schilpp said. Then, the leader at the Seashore who helped open a lot of doors in the early years left for a new job, Schilpp said.

In reality, the original vision may have never been possible to achieve in the Cape's outermost towns given the expense of daily life, a lack of housing, few university associations and little administrative and technical support, Schilpp said.

The effort has not been entirely fruitless.

The Payomet Performing Arts Center, with its tented venues and summer schedule, has made a home at the Highlands Center.

"We're the spaghetti that has stuck to the wall," said Kevin Rice, Payomet's managing artistic director, who estimates a summer audience now of around 30,000 for its music, theater and circus programs.

New roofs have been added to some buildings. A federal science research facility is housed in a couple of the buildings. Outdoor murals have been painted to freshen up walls. There is a wood kiln run by the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority parks buses there as well.

He expects the entire property to look better once the fence is installed and landscaping completed, Rice said.

"In its own crazy way, the fence is progress toward some end," he said. "It's slow going. The federal government does not have a big budget."

©2018 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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