An anonymous donor has pledged up to $1 million to pay for building a fire station for the city of Hallowell at the Stevens Commons property, the latest twist in a years-long debate over the future of city fire protection services.

A letter sent to City Manager Nate Rudy that was obtained by the Kennebec Journal from attorney Bryan M. Dench, of Auburn-based law firm Skelton, Taintor and Abbott, requires city leaders to decide by April 20 whether to accept the donation.

“The donor has established a very aggressive timeline with very specific requirements, and I will work with council to discuss the approach to designing and building a fire station if they choose to do that, and I will work with council to negotiate terms with the donor if they choose to pursue this,” Rudy said. “But it is a very aggressive timeline.”

Hallowell’s fire station, more than 185 years old, is unsuitable for a modern fire department or its firefighters and equipment. The city has been working for more than 13 months to figure out the future of its fire protection services, and this development is just the latest in a series of plot twists throughout the process. A public hearing is set for Thursday night and is the result of an effort by a city resident and local attorney who disagreed with a decision made by the City Council earlier this year to partner with Farmingdale and move the station out of town.

Mayor Mark Walker released a statement Wednesday praising the donor for his or her generosity.

“My first reaction to this wonderfully generous gift was I’m so proud to live in this city where a citizen or citizens are willing to donate such a large sum for the good of the public,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with the council and all those interested in fire services for Hallowell as we plan what’s best for the city.”

In the letter, sent to Rudy by email Monday, Dench said if the city accepts this pledge, he is authorized by his client to pledge further that the donor will transfer the funds “having a value up to the amount of the verified estimated cost of construction” to a city account. The letter notes that the amount cannot exceed $1 million.

Dench goes on to list six conditions of the pledge that the city must meet, including that the fire station must be built on the Stevens Commons property at the top of Winthrop Street and a suitable location on the property must be verified before any money is transferred.

The money may be used only for constructing a new station, and the money would not be transferred until the city provides satisfactory evidence that it has entered into a binding obligation to build the fire station. Dench later stipulates that the donor wishes to remain anonymous and will withdraw the pledge if any elected or appointed official or employee of Hallowell works to identify the donor.

Hallowell is not the only central Maine community to be offered a large donation recently for a firehouse.

Earlier this week, Winthrop Town Council members unanimously agreed to build a $1.8 million fire station on U.S. Route 202, replacing the current station, which is on Main Street. Part of council’s motivation to go forward with the project was that a private, anonymous donor pledged $450,000 to support it.

According to Winthrop Fire Chief Dan Brooks, the new firehouse will be about 9,500 square feet and include a four-bay garage with additional space for a boat, an all-terrain-vehicle and other equipment. The Winthrop station also will include offices, training rooms, a kitchen, a lobby and parking.

In Hallowell, after a 13-month review process by the Fire Services Committee and the City Council, councilors voted to continue to maintain a volunteer fire department and pursue an agreement to lease space in a yet-to-be-built station in Farmingdale. Hallowell resident and Augusta city attorney Stephen Langsdorf then circulated a petition that forced the council to either nullify its decision or put the question to the voters in a special election.

“In the event that council chooses to vacate their previous decision, this creates the potential for a third option to have a fire station in Hallowell,” Rudy said.

According to the letter, the city has until June 20 to provide evidence of a binding obligation to build the fire station. Matt Morrill, of Grand View Log and Timber Frames in Winthrop, acquired the Stevens Commons property from the state last year and has been working on developing a mixed-use development including affordable senior housing, commercial and retail space and small, clustered subdivisions.

Former Hallowell Fire Chief Mike Grant proposed building a public safety facility — including the Hallowell Fire and Police departments — on the Stevens Commons campus, but the plan never was considered seriously by the Fire Services Committee because of the cost. Estimates last fall put the cost of building a station at Stevens Commons at $1.6 million. At the time, Grant said the biggest immediate need was for a free-standing garage in a lot adjacent to an existing building on the campus. He said the Erskine Building could be updated later to include living quarters for firefighters, space for the Police Department and possibly a community center.

Rudy thinks the $1 million pledge might lead the council to reconsider that option.

“The Fire Services Committee and council determined a Hallowell fire station would simply be too expensive, and the Farmingdale option looked very good for budgetary and organizational reasons,” Rudy said, “but with the news of this very generous gift, the possibility of building a fire station in Hallowell is now viable.”

The council’s decision not to contract with Augusta for firefighting services has caused Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette to criticize the move, saying it will make response times to Hallowell emergencies even longer and continue to put an undue burden on the Augusta Fire Department.

But Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens, who took over for Grant last month, said he’s making changes to the dispatch orders that he hopes alleviates some of Audette’s concerns.

While the identity and motive of the donor are unknown and it’s not clear if the city will decide to explore building a station in Hallowell, Rudy knows one thing is certain.

“This introduces an element that no one anticipated, and for those who wanted a Hallowell Fire Department in Hallowell, this opens up a new opportunity for them to make that case to council,” Rudy said.

The public hearing begins at 6 p.m. Thursday in the City Hall auditorium.

Staff writer Charles Eichacker contributed to this report.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

filed under: