HALLOWELL — Less than a week after an anonymous donor pledged up to $1 million for construction of a new fire station, Hallowell officials were still wrapping their heads around the steps that’ll be taken in the coming months to make a new fire station in Hallowell a reality.

“We, as a city, have a lot to do because there are several parameters attached to the gift, and there’s a very aggressive time line,” Mayor Mark Walker said Friday morning. “But it’s all very exciting.”

The first step happened during a public hearing Thursday when the City Council unanimously voted to rescind their late January decision to move the Hallowell Fire Department to a shared, yet-to-be-built station in Farmingdale. The hearing was the result of a petition circulated by Stephen Langsdorf that forced the council to revisit its choice to forgo contracting fire services with Augusta and instead lease space in Farmingdale.

“It was a good meeting (Thursday), and everybody said what they wanted to say and council made a solid step forward after a pretty exciting turn of events,” City Manager Nate Rudy said. “Now we have work to do.”

The money comes with strings attached.

The city must decide by April 20 whether to accept the money, if they’ll build the station at Stevens Commons and whether they’ll enter into a binding obligation to build the station by June 20.

Rudy and Walker are hoping to meet with Stevens Commons owner and developer Matt Morrill in the coming days to discuss building the fire station somewhere on his 54-acre property at the top of Winthrop Street. Morrill acquired the property from the state last April.

“We need to talk to Matt and see if he has room for us up there,” Rudy said. “I think this would be a great partnership that would benefit he and (the city).”

In October, former Hallowell Fire Chief Mike Grant proposed building a new public safety facility, including a fire station, on the campus, and Morrill said reconstructing the campus’ Erskine Building as part of a multi-phase project was an option. Rudy said the generous gift puts all options back on the table.

“This is an amazing gift to the city, and we are very surprised to be involved,” Matt Morrill said Friday in a statement. “We look forward to discussions with city officials and doing what we can to keep the fire station in Hallowell.” Morrill, through his spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about the proposal.

Morrill has asked the city for $600,000 to improve the infrastructure on the campus, and the request is part of a $2.36 million bond package voters will decide in an April 28 special election.

Walker’s goal, albeit an aggressive one, is to have the new fire station completed before next year’s Water Street reconstruction project begins in April. That would give the city about 12 months to go through the design, permitting and approvals, bidding and construction process.

“It’s an incredible amount of work, and I don’t envy our city manager,” Walker said. “It’s very aggressive, but I think it’s feasible if we get to work on it today.”

The mayor said that during the Water Street project, traffic will be rerouted south on Second Street toward Gardiner, and there will be an increase in traffic passing in front of Hallowell’s current fire station, which could cause issues with fire response.

Another concern city officials will have to address is the number of historic buildings on the Stevens Commons campus. Walker said some are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and with that comes parameters when it comes to reconstruction or new construction near those buildings.

“That means we may have to consider selecting a location that isn’t impacted by that, and frankly, we don’t really know, so we need an expert,” he said.

STILL A LOT TO CONSIDER

The Fire Service Committee went through a 13-month process to determine the best course of action for Hallowell fire services and by a 3-2 vote recommended contracting with Augusta’s full-time department. The council, however, unanimously voted to go with the Farmingdale option, in part because of the desire to keep the more than 200-year-old department intact.

Langsdorf, a Hallowell resident and also Augusta’s city attorney, said he spoke with hundreds of Hallowell residents throughout the petition process and there was a strong sentiment to keep some level of appropriate fire services in Hallowell. He is happy the city chose to rescind its order, but he said there are still a lot of things the council and citizens need to consider.

One thing to consider might be what to do with the money that was set to go to Farmingdale or Augusta, and Langsdorf said there are a lot of different possibilities the council and residents could discuss. The city could choose to construct a bigger station with more amenities, or Hallowell could choose to staff the station with some number of full-time professional firefighters.

Continuing to work with the full-time department in Augusta is paramount, Langsdorf said.

“People definitely still want to work closely with Augusta, and I think it’s really important that both cities work together cooperatively,” he said. “There are still issues to be worked out, but it’s all very positive.”

An underlying issue throughout the months of discussion was response times and how whatever decision the council made would impact how long it takes the Hallowell Fire Department to arrive at a fire scene. Concerns from Augusta officials about the mutual aid agreement between the neighboring cities will also still need to be addressed, Langsdorf said.

Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens sent a letter to Augusta’s dispatch center which appears to change the way Augusta’s fire department would respond to a structure fire in Hallowell. The mutual aid agreement, which was last signed in 2014, states Augusta would automatically dispatch Ladder 1 and Station 2 to Hallowell upon notification of any reported structure fire or a condition dispatch that may be deemed a structure fire.

Owens’ new orders to the dispatch center stipulate Augusta only be called when there is a confirmed working fire. Farmingdale and Manchester’s departments, in addition to Hallowell’s, would respond first when a structure fire is reported.

“There is some confusion between us and them, and it’s a matter of meeting and going through what our understanding (of the mutual aid agreement) is,” Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said last week. “We have an agreement that says we’re supposed to be automatic, but we come to find out there was a directive sent to dispatch we didn’t know about.”

Owens, who has said he has a strained personal relationship with Audette, said last week he was reviewing his department’s procedures and was confident nothing has changed as far as response from Augusta.

Rudy said he expects to meet with Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo, Audette and Owens soon to discuss the mutual aid agreement and ways to make the relationship stronger.

“Augusta and Hallowell are going to come together, and we’re going to have a discussion on how we can move forward together productively,” Rudy said. “I think we both agree that we want to get together and move forward in a positive way.”

Hallowell’s council next meets for their regular meeting April 10, and Rudy said he would expect the council would vote on whether to accept the anonymous pledge at that meeting.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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