A concept rendering for the proposed Willow Street site for a new Augusta Police Department station. Image courtesy of Artifex Architects & Engineers/Manns Woodward Studios

AUGUSTA — City councilors have reached a consensus on a site for the proposed new police station.

During a workshop Tuesday night, councilors agreed to pursue the former Hannaford site on Willow Street as the location, choosing it over the two other sites under consideration on the north end of Water Street and next to the existing station on Union Street.

Councilors said the spot — across Cony Street from Augusta City Center and across the Kennebec River from downtown Water Street —will bring development to a centrally located, otherwise neglected site that doesn’t have the physical limitations and higher costs expected at the site proposed for the corner of Water and Laurel streets. And it will free up the existing Union Street police department building for a proposed deal with the Augusta Housing Authority to develop housing and its offices on that site.

Councilors didn’t vote at the workshop; it was the first time they’d discussed the proposed new station since the process was put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic struck. They could affirm the choice with a vote to authorize city officials to negotiate with the site’s owners as soon as their Thursday meeting.

Mayor David Rollins, who favored the Water Street location because he said building a station there would help revitalize the neglected north end of downtown, and councilors said the city — if the Willow Street site is chosen for the new police department — should still work to help spur the redevelopment of that downtown site where a vacant privately-owned former mill building has fallen into disrepair.

The consensus choice came through compromise as a way to move the project forward, as some councilors preferred the Water Street location as their first choice, while others preferred the Union Street site. The Willow Street site not only emerged as the first choice for some, but also as the only site out of the three that wasn’t rejected by any councilors.

Councilors have debated the project since at least 2018.

Problems with the existing building include a leaky roof, that it does not meet current critical facility building code standards, water that can’t be consumed due to lead contamination in the pipes, bathrooms and locker rooms with rotted flooring and rusty stalls, inadequate heat, security problems due to a lack of separation between public, semi-public and restricted areas, a dispatch center with no room to expand, the lack of a centrally located evidence holding room and a lack of secure parking.

Detective-Sgt. Jason Cote, president of the union that represents Augusta’s 43 police officers, said there was a buzz around the department Wednesday morning about the site choice.

“As a union we’re 100% unified with the Willow Street site, we have no issues with that spot whatsoever,” he said. “We need a new building.

“It’s deplorable, it’s outright embarrassing, to bring community members inside this facility,” Cote added. “We’ve wanted a new building for a long time.”

An Augusta police vehicle parks outside the former grocery store on Willow Street on Wednesday, the proposed site of a new Augusta Police Department. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Councilors said Tuesday the city needs to take action on the new station quickly, to take advantage of currently low interest rates and get police into an adequate facility. If negotiations with the site’s owners go well, borrowing for the project could go to voters for approval in June or November.

“I think Willow Street is a great landing spot we can maybe all kind of compromise on,” said Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind, who said he originally was in favor of the Union Street site.

He added that it allows the city to sell the APD’s current Union Street site to the Augusta Housing Authority to develop new housing and convert the existing police department building into offices.

Amanda Olson, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, which currently has its offices in the same city-owned building where the police department is located now, said Wednesday the organization was thrilled to see the city moving on the Willow Street site. She said the agency is interested in purchasing the Union Street site and building. Olson said that would then be renovated into housing to help address an ongoing lack of housing in the city, and as the authority’s new offices.

The city and housing authority officials have previously discussed a price of $650,000 for the site, which Olson said is approximately its assessed value. She said any offer would be subject to approval by the housing authority board and City Council.

“With such close proximity to the YMCA, Kennebec River Rail Trail, parks and the museum, it’s just the perfect place to live. It’s beautiful here,” Olson said. “Once council takes official action on the police department and I hear that the city is supportive of our proposal to develop the Union Street site, we will be ready to start really digging in and looking more closely at timelines, process, design and approvals.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said the new station is expected to cost approximately $20 million. City officials are recommending financing that amount with a bond to be paid back over 30 years, and timing it to coincide with the expiration of a Tax Increment Financing agreement for the Marketplace at Augusta that expires in 2023.

The expiration of that pact, Bridgeo said, would bring an infusion of about $1.8 million a year into the city’s general fund, which he said would more than cover the cost of the bond payments for the police station.

Since the city first expressed interest in it, the Willow Street property has been listed for sale at a price of $2.2 million. The company that owns the parcel has five years remaining on a lease with Hannaford for the building there. The grocery chain had a store at that location, before a new Hannaford was built up the hill at the site of the former Cony High School.

Bridego said an appraisal the city had done on the property valued it at around $1.9 million.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, a real estate broker, said the city should be able to get the property for significantly less than the asking price. He said the building is in a dilapidated condition and that Hannaford officials would likely be interested in paying money to the city in exchange for getting out of the company’s remaining lease obligation, which would further offset the city’s cost to buy the property.

A smiling Police Chief Jared Mills told city councilors Tuesday the Willow Street site would work well for police and the project moving forward “had been a long time coming.”

Councilors are scheduled to vote at their meeting Thursday to authorize Bridgeo to begin negotiations with the company that owns the Willow Street property and Hannaford.

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