ORLEANS — Volunteers handy with a hammer and saw built a garage for the town's fire truck on Main Street back in 1925. H.K and Theresa Cummings donated the land and town meeting chipped in $7,000. The police department moved in in 1954, and both departments moved to their new building in 1967, at which point the recreation department started using what had become known as the Old Firehouse.
After some period of disuse, said Selectman Alan McClennen, Steve Bornemeier and others “grasped onto this as an Orleans center activity that really deserved some more use...How many public buildings exist in the village center? There are two: the library and the firehouse.”
The Orleans Community Partnership jumped in and organized meeting space in the building for non-profit groups. Today about 68 meetings are held every month in the building, which is also occupied by the Orleans Chamber of Commerce.
“As the capacity level picked up,” McClennen recalled, “people said, 'Well, this isn't air conditioned' or 'Does it have heat?' There's a space heater in the main room that blasts away so you can't hear anyone at a meeting. Steve Bornemeier would run down there, open up, turn up the heat, then shut off the blower so at least people could talk.”
The selectman said he and others asked the town's historical commission to determine if the building was an historic asset, and it did. That allowed the Partnership to seek Community Preservation funds for a request for proposals to “do a preliminary scope of the building and tell us what could be done with it,” said McClennen. A Boston architectural firm was hired and “got a little carried away,” he said. “We ended up in a situation that would be incredibly expensive and probably begin to destroy the historic aspects of the building. They had all sorts of fancy meeting rooms. Let's remember, it's a wood-frame garage.”
So it was back to the Community Preservation Committee to secure funds for a peer review of the company's work, which was done by another Boston firm. That “got us to a point where it was clear it was worthwhile spending some money doing something that was a little less grandiose,” McClennen said, and resulted in a cost estimate of around $1.2 million for a more modest update and renovation. The next step involves a request from the board of selectmen to the Community Preservation Committee, which McClennen chairs, for money to prepare definitive plans for the work.
That would include improved access from the parking lot to the rear, relocation of public bathrooms within the building, and upgrades of utility systems and kitchen facilities.
“One of the ideas we have is to take the front of the building and reinstall the overhead doors that were there” when it was a fire station, said McClennen. The door on the chamber's side of the building (left) would be fixed in place with another door through the garage door, but on the meeting room side, the garage door could be raised during the summer to take advantage of its location on Parish Park.
Noelle Pina, executive director of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, said organizers and consultants “have been very careful to include us” in discussions about the future of the building. Originally, plans called for the chamber's visitor center to be relocated farther back on the organization's side, but Pina said the group's request that the center stay at the front, on Main Street, was accepted.
Keeping the chamber as a happy partner will be important for the town. After final plans are in place, McClennen said, he expects there will be a public selection process for a main tenant for the building, which could be the chamber. “As part of the process, we would probably ask the major tenant to manage the building,” he said, “instead of (the town) having to engage a building manager. So they would schedule the meetings, and after-school programming, and a whole bunch of things that take place there. That has an impact on their rent, because they're providing a service, but can also charge a rent, a little bit.”
Funds for the construction work would be sought from the CPC, with the hope that the main tenant would chip in some money as well. “Because this is an historic building,” McClennen said, “we could do this work using CPC funds over a series of years, so there would be no impact on the tax rate.”
The selectman thinks investing in the Old Firehouse will send a signal to private parties that downtown is an area in which to grow.
“From an economic point of view,” he said, “when the community does something like this, other people say they want to be part of it.”