HALLOWELL — Mayor Mark Walker said you could almost feel the weight of 225 years of Fire Department history during Thursday night’s City Council meeting.
“I think the public did a great job letting us know how passionately they felt about (Fire Department) independence,” Walker said. “The strength and pull of local control is still strong in small towns and cities.”
The council unanimously voted to save the Hallowell Fire Department by agreeing to lease space in a soon-to-be-built station in Farmingdale.
Both Walker and City Manager Nate Rudy commended the council for its leadership, especially Councilor George LaPointe. LaPointe said he was leaning toward voting in favor of contracting fire services with Augusta, but he wanted a unanimous decision, so he made a motion to approve the Farmingdale option.
“That’s leadership,” Rudy said. “If anybody thought for a minute that the councilors came into that meeting with their mind made up and were unwilling to be flexible, that meeting proved them wrong.”
Most people who spoke at Thursday’s meeting expressed the desire to keep Hallowell’s department, and it was clear that the at-times passionate pleas resonated with the council.
“It’s really heartening and refreshing to see a community come together like this around really difficult issues,” Rudy said. “The council handled an incredibly difficult thing with grace, and I was glad to be a part of it.”
The lease agreement with Farmingdale, Farmingdale Selectman Jim Grant said, will be for 10 years and will give both parties a chance to re-evaluate the deal after eight years.
“This is really a benefit for both communities,” Grant said.
He said the Board of Selectmen now knows with certainty in which direction it is going ahead of Town Meeting in June.
“We’re going to ask the residents (of Farmingdale) to allow us to build a new fire station, using a bond, but half the cost will be absorbed by Hallowell,” Grant said.
Over the next few months, Hallowell City Manager Nate Rudy will work with Farmingdale officials to formalize the terms of the 10-year lease.
“I think so far (Farmingdale officials) have been clear about what they propose, and I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Rudy said.
Farmingdale will select a site soon for the five-double-bay station, and Grant said the town hopes to have construction complete sometime next year. In the meantime, Hallowell will continue to operate its Fire Department out of the Second Street fire station, and Rudy said the work is just beginning.
Chief Mike Grant has announced his retirement after leading the Hallowell department for 31 years, and Rudy said he will meet with Walker and Grant soon to begin searching for his replacement. There is some question about whether the chief’s position will evolve into a part-time job rather than one with a stipend, but the council hasn’t decided that yet.
The vote to maintain the Fire Department came after more than a year of public meetings, information sessions, hearings and workshops designed to find the best option for the city’s fire protection services future. Walker said he was pleased with the work of the fire services committee.
“The committee did a fantastic job,” the mayor said. “It took a long time, but there was a lot of information to digest.”
In other business, the council unanimously approved the second reading of a $2.36 million bond package. The third reading will be held during the council’s regular meeting Feb. 13, and if approved, the next step would be a special election on the bond in late spring or early summer.
The proposed package, first discussed during a public workshop earlier this month, includes $600,000 earmarked for improvements to the road network at Stevens Commons, $585,000 for next year’s Water Street reconstruction project and $535,000 for road maintenance in rural Hallowell.
The finance committee debated the merits of having more than one bond package. Finance committee chairman George LaPointe said they decided on one bond because the various components of the bond fit together to support the continued economic vitality and development of Hallowell.
With the council voting to keep the city’s Fire Department, it is feasible that the bond could be updated to include money for the purchase of a new firetruck this year, but Walker said he wasn’t sure if that was the route the council would take. If not, another bond would be proposed later in the year to fund the truck.
Most public opposition has been toward the $600,000 that Stevens Commons owner and developer Matt Morrill has asked from the city for infrastructure improvements at the 54-acre campus on the top of Winthrop Street. Morrill has stated that the overall redevelopment of the property would cost more than $20 million, so he’ll need other investors and developers to help realize his vision for the property.
Many people said during several public meetings, and at Thursday’s council meeting, that they don’t support giving public funding to a private development. Morrill, however, said the project is a private-public partnership that will benefit Hallowell long after the bond debt is paid.
Since Morrill acquired the former girls’ school from the state for $215,000 in April, he’s envisioned the campus becoming a “centerpiece of Hallowell real estate,” a mixed-use development with affordable senior housing, commercial and retail space and small, clustered subdivisions. He said the infrastructure improvements are necessary to get other developers involved in the project.
Under Morrill’s proposal, the money from the bond would go from the city directly to the contractor, and the deeds to the roads would be turned over to the city prior to the work beginning.
The council is expected to vote to approve the third reading of the bond proposal at its Feb. 13 meeting. A special election would then be held in late spring or early summer, Rudy said.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663