AUGUSTA — The Augusta City Council has unanimously voted to authorize negotiations with the owner and tenant of the old Willow Street Hannaford property to buy the site and use it to build a new police station.

Early last week, councilors reached consensus on pursuing the site, instead of two others — on Water Street and Union Street.

On Thursday, councilors backed up that discussion with a 7-0 vote to authorize City Manager William Bridgeo to negotiate with the owner of the property, JOFKAM Co., according to city assessing records, and the property’s current tenant, Hannaford, which holds a lease on the vacant building for the next five years.

Since the city first expressed interest in the property as a potential location for a proposed new police station, 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 supermarket 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.

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

The existence of the lease of the property to Hannaford was why councilors authorized Bridgeo to negotiate with both the owner and tenant of the property at 7 Willow St.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, a real estate broker, said 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.

“I’ve been in consultation with the city attorney today, and we’re laying the groundwork for conversations with Hannaford executives, as well as the owners of the property,” Bridgeo told city councilors before their Thursday vote. “At a point in time when we’ve made some progress on those negotiations, I’ll be reporting back to council.”

This photo shows the former grocery store on Willow Street, left, and Augusta City Center, right Wednesday, February 17. The lot is a proposed site of a new Augusta Police station. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The spot is across Cony Street from Augusta City Center, and across the Kennebec River from downtown Water Street. It is nearly adjacent to the Inn at City Hall where the Police Department was located years ago, before being moved to its current home on Union Street.

Problems with the existing building include a leaky roof; it does not meet current critical facility building code standards; water that cannot 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, semipublic and restricted areas; a dispatch center with no room to expand; no centrally located evidence holding room; and a need for secure parking.

Councilors have debated building a new police station since at least 2018, although progress toward that goal was stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The major point of debate was not whether to build a new station, but where. Some, including Mayor David Rollins, have pushed for a downtown site, at the corner of Water and Laurel streets, while others, including Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind, initially favored building a new station next to the existing one on Union Street.

Councilors eventually compromised on the Willow Street site, which they said will bring development to a centrally located, otherwise-neglected location that does not have the physical limitations and higher projected costs of the site proposed for the corner of Water and Laurel streets. And it would free up the existing Union Street police station for a proposed deal with the Augusta Housing Authority, which is looking to develop housing and offices there.

Councilors said since news has spread of their choice of the Willow Street site, reaction from residents has been overwhelmingly positive, with no councilor reporting negative feedback.

“I’ve seen and talked to several people that are absolutely in favor of the project,” said Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud. “So when this goes to the ballot, there should absolutely be very little negativity toward this.”

If negotiations with the site’s owners go well, borrowing for the project could go to voters for approval in June or November.

Bridgeo said the new police station is expected to cost about $20 million. City officials are recommending financing that amount with a bond to be repaid 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.

If the project moves forward, the city would demolish the former supermarket building at the site and likely build a two-story police station.

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 last week the organization is still interested in buying the Union Street site and building from the city.

Olson said the building would be renovated into housing to help address an ongoing lack of affordable 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 about its assessed value. She said any offer would be subject to approval by the housing authority board of commissioners and City Council.

Bridgeo and Detective-Sgt. Jason Cote, president of the union that represents Augusta’s 43 police officers, have said officers are optimistic, and it has been a boost to morale within the department that the project appears to be moving forward.

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