HALLOWELL — Veteran Hallowell firefighter Capt. Richard Clark said department morale was low for much of the last 13 months as city officials, a special committee and citizens debated the future of the more-than-200-year-old department.

But now that an anonymous donor has pledged up to $1 million for a new fire station in Hallowell, Clark said, morale is at “its peak level” in his 13-plus years in the department.

“Our morale was at a real low point, but somehow we all stuck together,” Clark said during an interview Tuesday at City Hall. “We’re really so happy, and it’s fun again.”

Morale started to rise when the City Council, after more than a dozen public meetings, hearings and workshops, voted to save the department and lease space in a yet-to-be-built station in Farmingdale. It wasn’t perfect, Clark said, but it was better than nothing.

A petition circulated by Stephen Langsdorf, a Hallowell resident and Augusta’s city attorney, called the council’s decision into question and forced councilors to re-examine their choice. Clark said while Langsdorf is a Hallowell taxpayer, his job is to support Augusta.

“There seemed to be a lot of naysayers that have a pretty big voice in this community,” he said, “but I believe this community is going to rally around us.”

New Chief Jim Owens took command of the department in mid-February, and the morale continued to grow even higher. But when the donor’s pledge was announced and the council voted to rescind its Farmingdale decision to focus on building a station on the Stevens Commons campus, Clark said the firefighters were stunned, amazed and excited.

“It’s incredible what that’s done for our guys,” he said. “What a vote of confidence that somebody believes in us and is on our side enough to put that kind of cash out there.”

The million-dollar pledge comes with strings attached.

The city must decide by April 20 whether to accept the money, whether they’ll build the station at Stevens Commons and whether they’ll enter into a binding obligation to build the station by June 20. City Manager Nate Rudy said he’s continuing to have discussion with Stevens Commons’ owner and developer Matt Morrill and hopes a deal will be reached soon.

“This gift/donation is a game-changing moment and definitely makes the prospect of a Hallowell Fire Department much more viable,” Rudy said. “And you can tell the firefighters are really enthusiastic about it.”

Hallowell’s current fire station is more than 186 years old and cannot support the equipment of a modern fire department. The city has been debating for at least a decade about its fire protection services future, but a light appears to be at the end of that tunnel.

Peter Gray was one of the most outspoken Hallowell residents in favor of keeping fire services in Hallowell. He said it was amazing that somebody was willing to step forward and provide the support to keep the city’s Fire Department in Hallowell.

“I’m very excited and think this is a win-win for everyone,” Gray said. “Look at how attractive this will now make our community, and I even see this helping our real estate values. Everything will win with this one.”

Gray said he appreciated the data presented by the Fire Services Committee but added he always is concerned when discussions are data-driven.

“They try to just look at the metrics, but this was much bigger than that,” he said. “I hope they continue with planning and discussion, because there’s a lot of opportunity and hope they continue engaging the community.”

Rudy and Owens have begun early discussions on what a fire station at Stevens Commons might look like, and Lt. Peter Schumacher said there are certainly several things firefighters would hope to see in a new station.

He said on-site laundry facilities, a modern cascade system for their breathing apparatus, an exhaust removal system to keep the bays clean and garage space to accommodate a modern firetruck will all be welcome features.

Rudy said he and Owens will form a working group to make sure they capture all the ideas from firefighters especially because, since it’s a volunteer department, there are a lot of people with different backgrounds and expertise that Rudy wants to have included in the discussion.

Clark hopes that some of the apparent tension with the Augusta Fire Department and Chief Roger Audette will subside now that the department’s future appears more secure.

In emails obtained by the Kennebec Journal, Audette appeared to take several shots at the Hallowell department on several occasions after the council voted not to contract for fire services with Augusta. Owens stated in a previous interview that he had a strained relationship with Audette, though the Augusta chief said he didn’t have a problem with anybody in Hallowell. Audette didn’t immediately respond to an email request for additional comment.

Clark said morale was low throughout the 13-month committee review process because he thought the department was being dragged through the dirt. However, the comments by Audette and other Augusta officials that became public in the last few months brought the department closer together.

“It was a bunch of crap to read in the newspaper in every article that Augusta was a professional department and we weren’t,” Clark said, “but Chief Owens has come in and done nothing but support and praise us.

“He put his arms around the department, and now I think we’re better than we’ve ever been in my years here.”

The two departments will work out some details and potentially make some changes to their long-standing mutual-aid agreement, Rudy said.

A few weeks ago, Owens sent a letter to Augusta’s dispatch center changing the way the Augusta Fire Department is deployed to Hallowell. In the past, the Augusta department would come to Hallowell when there was a reported structure fire. After Owens’ changes, Augusta would come only when a structure fire is confirmed.

Owens said he hopes the change would ease some of the mutual-aid burden Augusta officials said Hallowell was putting on their department without receiving comparable aid in return.

“Jim knows what he’s doing,” Clark said. “We’ll call Augusta when we need them. Amen.”

Rudy hopes to meet with Augusta officials and Audette soon to “iron out the procedural issues,” and he hopes they’ll come to a “new and better understanding that meets the needs of both communities.”

Owens, Clark and Rudy hope a new fire station and a more secure future for the department will help recruit new firefighters. Clark said numerous interviews have been conducted since the anonymous pledge was announced, and he said their “dumpy old building not fit for a fire department” will no longer be a thorn in their side.

“When you build a shiny new station with shrubs out front and plenty of parking, it’s a whole different ballgame,” the captain said. “Everybody will want to join that team because it shows there’s somebody behind them.”

Rudy said there is some concern about the added maintenance cost a new station would bring to the Hallowell budget, but since there was already an allocation of $25,000 per year for the Farmingdale lease, the money should be there.

“Some commitment to funding the year-to-year maintenance of the fire station is in order,” he said.

The continuing discussion of fire services and the construction of a new station will be on the council’s agenda April 10, Rudy said. After a 13-month process, now the real work begins.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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