By Betty Adams
The Kennebec Journal
HALLOWELL, Maine — Residents gave city councilors a variety of responses about the future of the city's fire station at a visioning session Sunday in City Hall.
Most people supported preserving the building. Some wanted to upgrade it and continue to use it as a fire station. Others saw it as an opportunity to have a museum downtown to hold many of the city's historic items.
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The city is considering renovating the Second Street station or moving the fire station to a Winthrop Street site. Both those options are affected by the fact that the existing fire station is a historic structure in the city's historic district.
Mayor Charlotte Warren said councilors need to decide what to do about the fire station as part of preparing a budget over the next few months.
She said they wanted to hear from "the citizens of Hallowell who are protected by the fire service, pay for the fire service and all properties maintained by the city, including the fire station building."
No decisions were made at the meeting, and the information gathered is to go to the council's property committee to formulate a recommendation to the full council.
Sumner Webber, city historian, told the audience of more than 65 people that the building originally served as the town hall in 1829 — and later city hall — and continued in that function until about 1899.
Fire Chief Mike Grant said the building requires substantial renovations — estimated at almost $1 million — to continue to hold fire equipment and serve as a base for firefighters. Those renovations include taller truck bay doors, an exhaust system, special laundry facilities for contaminated gear and other code requirements. None of those fixes addresses the parking problems firefighters face when they respond to a call.
"It's just reached a point where we have outgrown it," Grant told those gathered. "We're operating out of one of the oldest fire stations. If you were turn that building into a museum, we have half the things down there already."
He said he also sought a regional solution to the station problem.
"We are not a stand-alone fire department," he said. "We are part of a regional fire service. If there's a structure fire in this town, Farmingdale will be activated automatically and respond with us. Whatever we look at for a building needs to be part of that regional solution."
Grant offered two possibilities for a new fire station site. One, which has been considered for some time, is a spot in the state-owned Stevens School complex on Winthrop Street. The other site — which Grant termed as ideal — is also on state land farther up Winthrop Street near Hall-Dale Elementary School and across from the city gardens.
Grant said the 14-member volunteer fire department handles 75 calls a year, with 30 to 40 percent of those fire alarm investigations. He said turning fire protection over to neighboring Augusta, which has a full-time fire department, would be expensive. "We are your best bet for your money," Grant said.
"I think you have a chance to correct three or four things," said Richard Hayes of Central Street. "Tear the fire station down and build a one-story parking garage all the way to Slate's. Purchase the empty lot to the side to build a fire station that you can drive in one side and out other."
Hayes, a former city councilor, said this would solve parking problems and allow the city to concentrate resources on its other historic buildings.
Webber disagreed. "It would be better for the fire station to get a new site and not tear down one of the most valuable historic sites," he said.
Bob Stubbs of Pleasant Street said he preferred to rehabilitate the existing building and use smaller fire trucks that could be accommodated at the current site. He suggested seeking historic grants to fund restoration.
Councilor Mark Walker, who checked into funding options for an estimated $600,000 for a new building, said very low interest rates make bonding attractive.
Councilor Steve Vellani said he believed the conversation should continue and council should continue to gather information.
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