FREEPORT — Town officials and stakeholders seem to agree that when it comes to the future of the former B.H. Bartol Library, the “right plan is a lot better than the fastest plan.”

The town is working on a request for proposals to see what potential renters may have in mind for the space after Abercrombie & Fitch vacated the building at the end of last year. The building is in the heart of Freeport’s outlet sector.

Town Manager Peter Joseph said he hasn’t heard from any individual or group pushing a specific proposal. Rather, people have just been “bouncing ideas around,” Joseph said.

However, what’s been uniform in most of his conversations, he said, is a “strong plea” from the community to “retain and protect what’s historic and iconic about the building.”

According to the Maine Historical Society, the Classical Revival-style building designed by Portland architect George Burnham was built in 1906. It was named for benefactor Barnabas Henry Bartol, a Freeport native and engineer.

The library at 55 Main St. closed in 1997, when the town built Freeport Community Library. The building later housed retailers, and was most recently occupied by Abercrombie & Fitch, which on Dec. 31 vacated the space after about 18 years of occupancy.

The town owns the building, but Joseph said he didn’t see a pressing public use for the space, nor do town staff recommend selling it.

Although Joseph said the exterior of the building could use a little maintenance, the interior of the building is in good shape and could be immediately filled by another retailer.

Abercrombie & Fitch was paying about $350,000 annually in rent, Joseph said, and although the town offered to negotiate the lease, there was no interest from the retailer because it “wasn’t profitable for them.”

Economic Development Director Keith McBride said he doubts the town could get someone to pay that much again.

“Despite my interest in some of the nonprofits and community uses … if that ($350,000) comes up again, that’s really hard to turn down,” he said. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Although McBride said there are several vacant commercial properties on Main Street, some longstanding, he does not feel this “reflects a brick-and-mortar retail (decline).”

He noted the former Tommy Hilfiger store, now occupied by Patagonia, became a “landmark” for the “false narrative that retail is dying” in Freeport.

“It’s not,” McBride said. Rather, he sees the state of outlets and brick-and-mortar retail, challenged by online discounters,as going through a transition.

“It takes a different mindset and type of retail to survive in this economy,” McBride said. “… It took the right, innovative business to fill (the former Tommy Hilfiger space).”

Still, many who gathered at a recent meeting to discuss the building’s future said the town should recognize there is a shift taking place, and fill the former library space with a sustainable use that would benefit the community in ways that aren’t monetary.

“(There’s) public benefit of the use, rather than who can we get in there to pay the rent immediately,” Joseph said.

Council Chairman John Egan added that the “right plan is a lot better than the fastest plan.”

Some said the RFP should encourage uses that create an “experience” for visitors and residents alike.

“There are still people that visit. … Those numbers remain steady,” McBride said. “Shopping destinations are turning into an experience … This is an opportunity to enhance what’s special about Freeport.”

Others suggested the town consider having the building serve as a community hub, offering space for the arts, a visitor’s center, museum, gallery, health care or educational uses.

The 7,500-square-foot property is valued at $2.3 million by the town assessor.

Joseph said the town is not ruling anything out at this point.

“While we’re bummed out by the financial loss,” he said, “We’re excited about the use opportunity.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]

Twitter: @JocelynVanSaun.

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