BOURNE, Mass. -- The massive stranding of about 60 pilot whales on the Cape last summer was a wrenching experience for would-be rescuers. They watched the whales repeatedly beach themselves and eventually die, despite efforts to guide them back to sea.
But the toll of future strandings may be less severe if plans for a hospital for beached marine animals are finally realized in Buzzards Bay. Those plans have been boosted with agreement on a long-awaited lease that might also create some much needed economic activity for the area.
The National Marine Life Center would have pools where animals ranging from whales to sea turtles could recover from strandings. There also would be exhibits that organizers say could be expected to draw as many as 400,000 people annually, possibly reviving Buzzards Bay's moribund waterfront.
"Main Street, Buzzards Bay, is in great need of an attraction, especially such a positive facility," said Bill Griffin, town administrator in Bourne, which includes Buzzards Bay.
The center's executive director, Sallie Riggs, has no trouble envisioning the completed project as she stands on the empty, weed-filled lot behind the site where the animal hospital will be.
"I see it," she said. "I see it in my sleep. I see it in the daytime. I know what this is going to be."
The $7 million project has struggled for traction since it was conceived by a group of grassroots advocates in 1995. Bourne was suggested as the center's home the next year, and an unused piece of property downtown was designated, Riggs said.
Fund raising stalled in 1999, though, when Bourne voters changed their form of government just as the center was set to sign a new lease, Riggs said. The center receded on the town's list of priorities and the perception grew that the project was foundering, she said.
But in late March, town officials agreed to a 50-year lease on the land at $1 a year, provided construction begins by Aug. 31, 2007. The agreement allows officials to begin getting permits for rehabilitating the property -- a former Mobil Oil facility and lumber yard -- and assures investors the center is not just a pipe dream, Riggs said.
"It certainly says to people, 'Yes, this project is going forward,"' she said.
About $2.5 million has been raised so far and another $1.9 million is needed before the first phase of construction can begin, Riggs said. The center is banking on a federal economic development grant that it will pursue jointly with the town, as well as private donations.
Buzzards Bay was once the gateway to the Cape, enduring miserable summer traffic in exchange for a steady stream of tourists that kept Main Street businesses hopping. But the village has struggled in the decades since highway construction on Route 6 and Interstate 495 allowed travelers to bypass the village on their way to Cape vacation points. Today's Main Street is a collection of scattered businesses, many with an abundance of empty parking spaces.
The marine rehabilitation center would help some of the old-time traffic return by capitalizing on the obvious emotional ties between people and sea mammals, Griffin said.
Not every animal that strands should be saved, Riggs said. Some beach themselves because they're mortally sick. But healthy mammals caught following a sick friend, or animals ill from manmade pollution, deserve care the hospital could provide.
"If humans are part of the reason," she said, "we need to be part of the cure."