Modeled on the Duxbury Bay Maritime School and Community Boating Center in New Bedford, the Center aims to engage thousands of people of all ages each year in a variety of outdoor activities such as, sailing, paddling, shellfishing, and other educational programs designed to build a connection and sense of stewardship toward Buzzards Bay. While the Center was completed in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed an official ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration.
The waterfront facility includes the renovated Onset Bathhouse, which serves as the Center’s headquarters, main level boat storage, and a second-floor community center/educational space. The Center is surrounded by 100 acres of conservation lands that have been protected by the Coalition and serve as exploration destinations, including the coastal dune and beach at Burgess Point, the expansive salt marshes of Shell Point Bay, and Wickets Island — the centerpiece of Onset Bay and a perennial favorite of locals.
“What we are doing here today all stems from that magical four-acre island over there in the Center of Onset Bay,” said Mark Rasmussen, the Coalition’s President. The Coalition purchased Wickets Island for permanent protection and public access back in 2014. Around the same time, the organization completed a region-wide assessment to understand gaps in outdoor programs and access to the Bay. “We were astonished by what little we found to make it easy for Wareham residents to enjoy the waters around them.” Inspired by an island and motivated by the need to do something to connect local youth and families to the Bay, the vision for the Onset Bay Center was born.
Creating the Center would have remained a mere idea had it not been for the unwavering support and collaboration of several town officials and community partners, notably the Wareham Board of Selectman and the Onset Bay Association. Kat Jones, president of the Onset Bay Association, spoke proudly about being a part of the Onset Bay Center’s evolution, particularly the historic bathhouse’s long overdue revitalization. “To experience the whole thing — what an opportunity for all of us,” she said, noting that “Anything that is worthwhile is never easy.”
“We knew from the beginning that what we wanted to create here was desperately needed and fortunately, the town received the idea with open arms. The real work was in the fundraising,” said Rasmussen. What was anticipated as a $5 million project, ended up being a $7.55 million project by the time it was completed. In addition to the renovation of the bathhouse, staffing, and land purchases, the Center’s fundraising campaign included a one million dollar endowment to provide program scholarships to low-income families from the community. “It’s part of our commitment that this Center always remains a place for everyone.”
An impressive $6 million came from private support, with $2.5 million coming from Wareham residents. The Onset bathhouse’s meeting space was officially named the McFadden Center in honor of Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler, Onset natives who made a generous one million dollar challenge grant early on to encourage more private investment in the project. The rest came from the Massachusetts Seaport Economic Council, Mass Cultural Council, and other state grants as well as the Town of Wareham’s Community Preservation Fund.
In its inaugural year, the Center engaged more than 400 children and 200 adults in outdoor programs such as learn to sail and swim lessons. The final project associated with the Onset Bay Center is a renovation of the Stone Pier on Wickets Island to make public access easier and safer. An additional $150,000 grant for the pier renovation was just approved by the Town’s Community Preservation Committee at its recent meeting on October 25.