HALLOWELL — The Hallowell Fire Department has come a long way in the last six months.

Before an anonymous donor came forward, the department was going to be either disbanded or asked to share space in an unbuilt station in Farmingdale. It had a dwindling number of volunteer firefighters and seemed headed for a slow demise.

Now construction is set to begin on the city’s first new fire station in almost 130 years following a groundbreaking ceremony Friday at Stevens Commons. Mayor Mark Walker, the City Council, Fire Chief Jim Owens, several firefighters, Stevens Commons developer Matt Morrill, and other city officials were on hand for the event.

Earlier this week, the City Council and Planning Board approved architect Rosie Curtis’ final design plan, clearing a path to begin working at the Stevens Commons site where the Farwell Building used to stand. That building was demolished using an excavator over two days this week.

“It’s been a wonderful journey working with the city of Hallowell and the firefighters to design what we truly hope will be a fire station for the whole community,” Curtis said at the groundbreaking event. “We’ve designed a beautiful building we hope will become as much a part of this neighborhood as the current fire station is on Second Street.”

The Second Street station will undergo a $215,000 rehabilitation project to shore up the foundation and structure before a task force looks at future uses of the historic building, which was built in 1828 and served as the Town Hall and then City Hall before the Fire Department moved there from Water Street in the late 19th century.

Hallowell is one of several central Maine municipalities investing in fire services. Augusta spent more than $4 million on a new station in the city’s northern part and committed an additional $6 million to renovate its main station, which overlooks downtown. Winthrop has started construction of an $1.8 million station, and a new station in East Pittston is nearly complete.

The 5,300-square-foot station in Hallowell will include a chief’s office, a training room, a lounge and sleeping space, several bathrooms, a kitchen and a conference room. The garage will be 64 feet long and 56 feet wide with enough room for three modern firetrucks.

The construction is being funded by an anonymous donor who pledged up to $1 million in March and recently increased the donation to an unspecified amount. The city will not pay anything for construction, and the city hopes the station — being built on a parcel of land Morrill donated to the city — is finished before a major Water Street reconstruction project begins next April.

A GAME CHANGER

Since the donation was announced, the Fire Department’s morale has improved, its membership has grown to more than 20 firefighters, the city has approved the purchase of new equipment including air packs, and Owens was named the permanent chief.

“It’s a whole new adventure for the guys who’ve been around, and for the newer guys, it’s exciting too,” Assistant Chief Roy Girard said. “Everybody’s anxious and excited to show that we’re going to up the ante.”

Owens wanted to make sure former fire chief Mike Grant was recognized for everything he did to hold the department together through years of uncertainty and years of not knowing if the department was going to continue its services to Hallowell. Grant retired after 30 years in January. Owens took over as interim chief shortly afterward and then was appointed the permanent chief this week.

“(Chief Grant) could’ve just said to heck with this thing and walked away,” Owens said. “I give him all the credit for maintaining the department.”

When the new station is complete, Owens and Girard want it to be an open station where members of the community, especially children, can come and take a tour, see the trucks and talk to the firefighters. They want its doors always to be open, both literally and figuratively.

“We need to open the big red doors and let people in, because if it’s all closed up, it looks like you’re hiding,” the chief said. “Lately, all of our contact with the public has been positive, and you can’t imagine what that’s like for these guys.”

While Owens and the firefighters said they cannot thank the donor enough for funding construction of the new building, there are other department needs that have nothing to do with the structure. There is funding available, including through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. It provides money for gear, hoses, equipment and trucks.

It is an extremely competitive process, Owens and Rudy said, but Hallowell has a compelling story to tell on its application.

“The Fire Department story is about trying to figure out how to deliver an adequate and responsible level of service while keeping the budget in check,” Rudy said. “If you have a good story to tell — and Hallowell does — grantors are receptive to that.”

IMPROVING, GROWING HALLOWELL

Hallowell’s story also includes investments around the whole city, not just the Fire Department, including the Stevens Commons project.

Morrill, who purchased the 54-acre Stevens Commons campus from the state for $215,000 in April 2016, said he hopes the new station becomes a crown jewel of the property and leads to future investments from other developers.

“We’re super-excited to see a shovel in the ground for a new project,” Morrill said. “It’s progress, forward movement and collaboration, which is all a part of getting this thing moving and jump-started. The city is invested in the roads, we’re invested in the buildings, and the new fire station is going to be a gem at the top of the hill.”

Walker created a Fire Department working group soon after being sworn in for his second term in January 2016, and over the course of about 14 months, the group held meetings, public forums and workshops before ultimately recommending the department be disbanded in favor of a fire services contract with Augusta.

“Look how proud our firefighters were, standing there getting their new fire station, when the recommendation of a study group was to disband them,” Walker said after the groundbreaking. Councilors, city officials, firefighters and the design-build team took turns lifting dirt with gold-plated shovels as part of a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of the new building.

The mayor said there are many investments in Hallowell — fire services, Stevens Commons, downtown parking, Water Street — and he said there’s room for more.

“I think we’ve done a lot to lay the groundwork for more improvements and private money coming in,” he said. “We need affordable and market-rate housing and good opportunities for people who want to live here.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ