ORLEANS — At the town’s community building on Main Street, things are quieter than when firetrucks raced out the door, but that doesn’t mean the former fire and police station is any less busy. Many programs have activities there, and the potential of the structure has yet to be fully realized, some say.
“It’s a small building, but a hub of activity,” JoAnna Keeley, chairperson of the Orleans Cultural District Council, told the selectmen Dec. 18. As the facility’s volunteer coordinator, she schedules the “13 to 15 groups that use the Old Firehouse Gallery and small meeting rooms in the part of the building reserved for after-school activities. There are also public restrooms as well as the area the Orleans Chamber of Commerce uses for activities.”
In 2018, Keeley said, “anywhere from 60 to 85 people go through that building every week,” not counting the after-school program. “It’s actually a community building in the sense that people show up, set up, keep it clean. The people are totally involved.”
Service dogs are trained there in the evening. The town’s recreation department holds Tai Chi classes, local artists show their work in the gallery, and Cape Cod Community College hosts an eight-week workforce training program at least once a year. There are yoga classes, and a meditation class is offered during the noon hour.
“It’s all by donation,” Keeley said. “We are in the black, I am really happy to say. We have a license with the town. We pay liability insurance out of donations so the town doesn’t have that responsibility.” Fees cover cleaning as well. “It would really be nice to have a part-time coordinator,” said Keeley. “There’s enough money in the budget that we could pay a coordinator.”
Like others in town, Keeley says the structure has untapped potential. “I’d love to see that building have its old facade,” she said. “Glass doors on the front of the building would be historic. They would make that building even more alive on Main Street.”
The old firehouse found its way to the board’s agenda because Selectman Mefford Runyon asked for an update. “My feeling is that the property is worth addressing,” he said, “and trying to keep it going. How we fund it, I’m not sure.”
Several years ago, Town Administrator John Kelly said, the building gained local historic structure status and benefited from Community Preservation funds that paid for a structural assessment. “The building is weather-tight,” he said, and an overall redevelopment plan was put together, but “there’s never been an agreement or commitment how it would be funded.
“If the town wants to go forward and do a general rehabilitation, you need to have an article at town meeting,” Kelly said. “At that point, because of the historic preservation status, anything that would change the facade would have to have approval of the local historical commission. There’s no interior staircase to the second floor; the idea was to maximize space on the first floor. There’s no ability to put housing up there.”
That last piece of information gave Selectman David Currier pause. “We’re crying for housing in downtown,” he said. “I hate to see 2,800 square feet thrown away in the middle of the town.”
Kelly suggested that a building committee might be formed “at some point” to look at the Old Firehouse’s potential and that a feasibility study could be conducted. “Don’t call it a committee,” Selectman Kevin Galligan advised later. “Call it a task force.”
Runyon indicated that the heavily-used building could benefit from more attention.
“That’s our downtown public toilets,” he said of facilities at the rear of the building. “If you’ve been there recently, I don’t think you’d be proud to be an Orleans citizen based on the state of those toilets.” Later, Selectman Chairman Mark Mathison asked if the bathrooms were being maintained properly. “We use the funds that come in with the rents,” Kelly said. “They’re paid back out for utilities and maintenance. We have custodial services for the bathrooms and repairs… I haven’t been there in a while. I was not aware they’re in tough shape.”
“Think 1950s elementary school,” Runyon said.
“But they’re cleaning,” Keeley added. “They might be outdated,” Kelly said, “but they’re clean.”