ORLEANS – As the town's first fire station, there's no arguing the historic value of the Main Street Community Center. But the community preservation committee wasn't sold on the need to spend $2 million to restore the aging building.
The committee voted 5-4 March 10 against endorsing the use of Community Preservation Act funds to make improvements to and bring up to code the building at 44 Main St., which dates back to 1926. The request is one of several applications for community preservation funding set to go before voters at annual town meeting on May 9.
The application from the community building renovation task force asks that the $2 million be bonded out over a period of 20 years. The project calls for improvements to be made to both the interior and exterior of the building, with bathrooms in the back and room inside for a "flex" room, kitchen and office and meeting space. In the front of the building would be a large function room as well as space for the Orleans Chamber of Commerce in the adjoining visitors center. The proposal also calls for a garage door to be installed in the front of the building in the style of the one that was installed for the fire station in 1940.
The building is the second oldest under the control of the town of Orleans, but the committee's reluctance to endorse the project stemmed from concerns from the Orleans Historical Commission, which is not convinced as to whether or not the work as proposed meets the standards of a historic restoration project as defined by the Secretary of the Interior.
Alan McClennen, who chairs the task force, said a number of the commission's concerns had been addressed prior to the CPC's March 10 meeting. Those included details about the replacement of aluminum windows on the east side of the building, plans to insulate interior walls and the roof shingling, the status of the existing chimney, the design of the garage door and the need to bring the building fully up to code. But Charles Ellis, the CPC's representative from the historical commission, said the commission still didn't have the information it needed to vote in support of the project.
"The commission has to feel that the standards are met to meet the enabling legislation," he said.
McClennen said restoring the building, which is actively used by numerous groups and organizations in town, is in line with the town's efforts to revitalize the downtown area. Failing to fund the restoration sets those efforts back, he said. He also expressed concern about what the fate of the building might be in the long term if funding is not approved to support the work.
"The building will continue to exist as a second class citizen, and someday people are going to say 'Why do we have this building anyway?' And it's going to be thrown away," he said.
McClennen reiterated the historic value of the building, noting that the historical commission itself recognized as much in a vote taken in 2013. He also pointed out that the CPC has already committed $193,000 toward the project through three past grant cycles. That money was used to fund two historic studies and a feasibility study.
But some CPC members had reservations about the $2 million request. Joan Francolini spoke against bonding the money, which she said would make it harder for the committee to support future historic preservation requests in the coming years.
"I think this is a fabulous project to take to the voters," she said. "Put it on the warrant, have them decide, but do not use CPC funds for it."
CPC Chairman Walter North said while approving the bonding could make money "tight" come 2025, he said the request would still be manageable, and argued strongly in support of backing the request.
"To let [the building] limp along in a degraded, appalling state is an embarrassment, in my view, to the kind of community we want to be, and the kind of community values we want to signal," he said. He also said he believed that there is still room for the commission's concerns to be addressed ahead of town meeting.
"Speaking for the historical commission, they don't have that same comfort level at this time," Ellis responded.
Others on the committee echoed North's support for the project. Kevin Galligan, the select board's representative, said that adherence to the Secretary of the Interior standards could be set as a condition of the CPC's vote in support of the project. Chet Crabtree, meanwhile, called the funding "a financial bridge" that's needed to help make the project feasible.
North made a motion to support the funding request, but it failed to pass. Ellis said more time needs to be spent exploring other potential funding sources, adding that he would be in favor of a smaller CPC request. Committee member Barry Alper said with other pressing needs in town including affordable housing, spending $2 million on a building restoration may not be the best use of preservation money.
"It's being utilized, it's not in danger of falling down," he said. "Obviously there's a lot of room for improvement, but it is fully utilized. Whatever we vote tonight, the building will still exist in the same place."
McClennen noted that the CPC's votes on three other applications for building projects currently before it this grant cycle did not include requirements that they meet the Secretary of the Interior's standards.
Despite the CPC's vote, the article seeking funding for the restoration could still pass with voters at annual town meeting.
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