HALLOWELL — An informal poll taken Saturday at a City Council retreat revealed that a majority of the council supports divesting city funding from the Second Street Fire Station.

The council took up goal setting for 2020 at a retreat Saturday morning at the Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center, Councilors discussed the upcoming budget, the future of city-owned properties and the upcoming comprehensive plan. No official action was taken.

Councilor-at-Large George D. Lapointe, left, and Ward 2 Councilor Michael Frett speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

At the end of a spirited discussed, four councilors — Kate Dufour, Michael Frett, George Lapointe and Patrick Wynne — voted yes after being asked if they supported divesting city funds from the Second Street Fire Station, either through leasing or selling with covenants to preserve certain aspects of the building.

In another vote, all seven councilors supported holding a public hearing about the topic. Before presenting any information to the public, councilors plan to calculate an estimate of what any potential rehabilitations would cost for the building.

Frett, who previously served on a committee tasked with considering the best use for city-owned properties, expressed frustration with other councilors’ wishes to gather data to inform scenarios that the City Council has not committed to. He said there has been enough data in previous reports to show citizens how much money it could cost to rehab the building.

“Pony up folks, guts to the table,” Frett added. “What is it that the council wants to do?”

Back in May, councilors voted to approve $2,750 in funding for a commercial appraisal of the former fire station by Gorham-based Maine Valuation Co. That appraisal was returned in December and it was determined that the building is worth $300,000.

The appraisal document  issued the opinion that if vacant, the property would be “maximally productive” if it was held for “development with a mixed commercial/residential use until such time as development is financially feasible.” If occupied, the “maximally productive” use would be “an owner (or) user desiring commercial and residential space for owner occupancy, possibly with ancillary rental income from the additional unused space.”

Councilor-at-Large Maureen Aucoin speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Councilor Maureen Aucoin told the Kennebec Journal last month that those best uses were based on sales of comparable properties, and the city would also have to consider “community needs, fiscal considerations and long-term visions.”

The city has already spent some funds on stabilizing the building. A memo written by Lapointe in February said $220,600 in bond funds was used to stabilize the building and the city spends about $20,000 a year to maintain the building. That same memo stated, based on an August 2018 report, it would cost $336,284 to fully rehabilitate the building. City Manager Nate Rudy said there will likely be additional plumbing, electrical and painting costs.

Ward 4 Councilor Diano Circo speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Councilor Diano Circo said he has been telling residents that any project at the station would cost around $1 million. He said the council should find a number, even if it was inflated, and use that number in future conversations so residents are not surprised by the high cost of rehabbing the property.

Councilor Maureen Aucoin said the council should come up with a methodology for finding that number, but Mayor Mark Walker said that could be discussed at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting.

Wynne said the city would be better off selling the property, adding that he didn’t feel it was the best location for the police department, which has long been considered as a favorable use for the property. He said there could a less expensive solution to moving the department out of its cramped station in City Hall. He also said it would be beneficial to get the station back on the city’s tax rolls.

“I’m comfortable saying right now that we should considering putting it on the market,” he said, adding that his second scenario could be creating a community center at the property.

Aucoin said the council would have to consider how a potential sale would affect members of Hallowell’s Citizen’s Initiative, who have raised money to preserve the Second Street Fire Station.

Ward 5 Councilor Patrick B. Wynne speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Dufour did not favor a lease agreement for the property, instead favoring retaining the property for a city use or selling it. She said the city had too many priorities to be a landlord for the property.

“If there is a good use for it, I’m OK keeping it; if that’s not the choice, I say we’re out,” she said. “This half-in, half-out just doesn’t work for us.”

Last month, the city put out a request for proposals for a floor plan of a possible police station in the Second Street Fire Station. That request was posted on the city’s website on Dec. 23 with a Jan. 8 deadline, but City Manager Nate Rudy said he would likely extend that deadline by another two weeks.

Rudy said a future request for proposal will use the aforementioned floor plans and likely include an estimate for what it would cost to fully rehab the building, with and without housing the police department in the building.

The station, built in 1828, houses a food bank in the basement and also holds historical artifacts. A room in the station is currently being used as a studio for artist Chris Cart, who is painting a mural.

 

Housing could be focus of comprehensive plan

During a discussion about the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan, councilors highlighted a need for diverse housing solutions geared toward young adults and aging citizens.

Rudy said there was a scarcity of rental units in Hallowell, which drives up prices. Further, he said, most potential developers would be building properties which would be better for their bottom line.

Frett said the city should attempt to find areas in the city for the development of affordable housing or use city ordinances and policies to add to their “toolkit” for allowing those types of development.

Mayor Mark Walker speaks Saturday during a city council retreat at Maple Hill Farm Inn and Conference Center in Hallowell. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Lapointe said builders constructing new housing in Hallowell would look for high-end single-family homes because they “get more return.”

In August, Rudy told the Kennebec Journal, anecdotally, that market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Hallowell is $800 to $1,200 per month. Lapointe advocated for using the comprehensive plan to create “un-market-rate housing,” as the market-rate could price those without the need for a single-family home out of town.

Walker said the increasing prices of downtown apartments has driven some of his friends to Gardiner, which offers similar downtown amenities to Hallowell with lower rent.

Wynne said it would be “great” if housing in Hallowell grew “organically,” but he worried about the need for emergency services that are “pretty well-tasked” already.

Circo said the city’s stock of affordable housing was low-quality and floated the idea of improving the existing stock of houses.

Rudy said the comprehensive plan’s deadline is in 2023, but a draft could be finished by the city’s Comprehensive Plan Committee by March 2021, before being looked over by the Ordinance Rewrite Committee.

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