HALLOWELL — Fire Chief Mike Grant has long envisioned a new fire station at the Stevens School campus at the top of Winthrop Street. But as long as the 54-acre campus was owned by the state, that vision could not be realized.

Since Matt Morrill purchased the property from the state in April and submitted his master plan last month to the city that includes a mix of uses, Grant’s vision of a new station on the campus has come into focus.

“We always looked at this empty lot (next to the Erskine Building) as the perfect place for a fire station,” Grant said while walking with Morrill on the campus Friday morning. “You’ll get more value out of any improvements if you have a public safety building included.”

Grant and Morrill envision a free-standing garage in a lot adjacent to the Erskine Building, one of the northernmost buildings on the campus. Plans call for a new road called Cedar Street, between Beech Street and Coos Lane, that would have a loop so firetrucks would be able to exit two ways, depending on where the trucks were headed.

“That way, you’re not always coming out in the middle of the hill (on Winthrop Street), which has always been a concern,” Grant said. “It alleviates that concern, and with modern firetrucks, going downhill is not a concern.”

Morrill thinks it would be a multi-phase project, with the first phase being the construction of the fire station. After that, renovation of the Erskine Building could include living quarters for firefighters, a space for the Hallowell Police Department and maybe even a community center for use by residents of the Stevens Commons campus or the public.

“It could be an option for the city or another investor to renovate (Erskine), but it’s a perfect use for that building,” said Morrill, of Grand View Log and Timber Frames in Winthrop. “There’s a lot of work that has to happen, and it could be expensive, but the spaces inside are usable and would fit well.”

While an expanded space for the city’s Fire Department would come in a later phase, Grant said the department would be fine in just a garage, because that’s basically what they have now at the Second Street station, which is more than 180 years old.

“We’re working within the confines of the trucks, we meet around the trucks and our offices are virtual,” Grant said. “This would at least get us out of that building and into a decent garage, and then we can work on what’s going to happen with (Erskine).”

Grant said the process started with the need to get Hallowell’s trucks and equipment out of the unsuitable garage where it’s been stationed since the mid-1800s. It’s evolved into a full-blown discussion about the future of the city’s fire protection services.

“I know there are a lot of naysayers who don’t want to invest in this place, but if you open your eyes and look at the possibilities, this is it,” Grant said.

Stevens Commons, as it is now called, has to be developed within the city’s historic district guidelines, and Morrill and Grant have assured everybody that a new fire station would be “designed in harmony with the rest of the campus and historic district,” meaning the garage doors wouldn’t face Winthrop Street; the back of the station would be seen from most vantage points on campus, and it would match the exterior of the other buildings on campus.

Morrill wants to include the community in the process, saying if “it’s going to have some community-based use, let’s involve the community.”

Over the last several months, City Manager Nate Rudy provided the fire services committee with nine options, including contracting with Augusta and disbanding the Hallowell department, sharing space with Farmingdale in that town’s station while operating autonomously, reconstructing the existing Second Street station and building a facility at Stevens School that would include the fire and police departments and the city’s emergency management department.

According to Rudy’s estimates, moving into a new public safety building at the Stevens Campus would add $141.14 in annual tax per $182,000 of valuation. Grant and Morrill are expected to provide the committee specific figures in the next several weeks, before the committee’s next meeting.

During a meeting Monday, the committee all but ruled out any proposal that included a 24/7 per diem department because it would be too costly for the city, and thus would add too much to Hallowell residents’ property taxes each year. Rudy’s estimates showed the cost over a 10-year period, but Grant thinks 10 years isn’t far enough. Grant said a 24/7 per diem department means firefighters would be like part-time workers without benefits. They would work varying shifts based on availability, like reserve police officers, and would be paid per shift. Currently, Hallowell firefighters are paid hourly per call.

“If you max it out to 20 years, the cost goes down,” Grant said. “Augusta’s plan keeps going up every year, but our proposal’s initial cost goes up, and may even be higher than Augusta; but eventually it goes back down, while their line continues up.”

Grant said that fire services going forward never will be cheaper than they once were, especially if they build a station, because of maintenance and upkeep.

The longtime Hallowell fire chief said many people in Hallowell have a lot of pride in the community and might be willing to donate to the cause, which would lower the cost of construction and subsequently would lessen the tax burden on individual property owners.

The plan to lease several bays in Farmingdale’s station while operating a separate department is not right for Hallowell, Grant said.

“I’m not comfortable with having made investments in the building that is in another town,” he said. Grant thinks a new fire station and public safety facility would help recruit new firefighters and police officers, who would be proud to work out of a new station.

The chief said he’s put in grants recently for new air packs, but he can see why foundations or people wouldn’t want to put money into a Fire Department whose own city doesn’t invest in it.

“They go through peer review and will Google the fire station and Fire Department, so it’s detrimental,” he said. “Eventually, I need to find someone to lead this department, and how am I going to interest someone with the skills necessary when they don’t have support behind them?”

Grant and Morrill first spoke about the possibility of a fire station on the property shortly after the developer acquired the former girls’ school campus for $215,000. The two plan to continue to talk in the next several weeks about specific design plans for the fire station.

The fire services committee will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, and expects to have firm numbers from Grant. The committee also has talked about holding a public meeting to get the public’s opinion on the proposals before making a recommendation to the City Council.

It is unclear whether the committee will have its recommendation in time for the Nov. 7 council meeting, though that is the hope. The official review for completeness of Morrill’s master plan for Stevens Commons should be on the Planning Board agenda for that board’s Oct. 16 meeting.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ


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