Brainstorming session points to possible Bridgton Memorial site uses

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

What is the best possible use of the 4.6-acre Bridgton Memorial School site?

And, would that developmental plan be acceptable in the eyes of SAD 61?

Those two questions drove a recent informal brainstorming session amongst town officials and interested groups.

For several years now, conversations between SAD 61 and Bridgton regarding the future use of the old school has yielded little to no movement.

SAD 61 currently uses the building for storage, but like Casco Memorial (which was turned back over to the town and later demolished after officials decided to seek another option for town office space), the district would like to move on from the property — under the right circumstances.

The school district could address its storage needs (dry products and other items) by building a new structure elsewhere (likely in a more centralized location).

However, due to the Bridgton Memorial School site’s proximity to Stevens Brook Elementary, SAD 61 wants to be assured that the future use poses no safety threats to children, and if possible, might include an educational tie-in — like a Rec Center, which also includes leased space for the district’s Adult Education program, which could be seeking a new home if SAD 61 renovates/restructures the Crooked River facility on Route 11 to return elementary instruction. Discussions to revive the Crooked River project will likely begin in months ahead.

A few weeks ago, selectmen toured the Memorial School and were able to give an eyeball evaluation of the structure.

With Town Manager Bob Peabody and Community Development Director Audrey Knight leading the “gathering of the minds” discussion held on Nov. 9, attendees were briefed on site dimensions and possible constraints.

Blank sheets of paper taped to the Bridgton Municipal Complex lower meeting room walls soon filled with steps to follow and points to consider:

  • Property transfer issues.
  • Property cleanup.
  • Goals for the property?
  • Public or private development of commercial space?
  • Keep some or all of the current structure and renovate, or should the building be demolished (a couple years ago, the town’s CDC estimated cost at $500,000)? Existing problems include lead and asbestos.

Then, ideas started to flow.

A return of the Narrow Gauge with the Memorial School serving as a museum, as well as a depot for an operational rail ride? Peter Lowell has had talks with Brian Fanslau, who is the railroad/shop superintendent at Boothbay Railway Village, about relocating some pieces to Bridgton. Fanslau heard about Lowell’s interest about a possible Narrow Gauge return to Bridgton, and reached out to him.

“Speaking as an individual, Brian has some Bridgton stock which he is interested in getting back to its home, Bridgton, setting up a showcase and lay out a short stretch of track” Lowell said. “

“I think it’s something really worth considering,” selectman Bob Murphy said. “It could be a real drawing point for people to come to town.”

He added another twist, developing a Bridgton High School museum since “there’s a lot of stuff in people’s houses” to display.

One path the town could pursue is to develop a building with multiple tenants, thus sharing in the cost of both construction and future expenses, Lowell offered. That approach was taken to build an indoor ice arena, which was situated at Bridgton Academy, but received grant funding to assist in facility construction. Today, the facility is utilized by the BA hockey program, as well as local high schools and adult/youth skating programs.

Rec Director Gary Colello piggybacked that thought proposing a facility — possibly the 18,000 to 25,000-square-foot Bridgton Health Education Recreation Center — that could include recreation, as well as space for adult education, college courses and Headstart. He noted that although the town has a Headstart, “it holds less than 20 kids” and Colello wondered if more space was available if other children could be served.

With Pondicherry Park adjacent to the school site, many felt consideration could be given to developing bike trails and/or a “village green.”

How about senior citizen housing?

At this point without spending money, Lowell suggested the town develop a “concept” of a multiuse facility and possibly types of use to present to SAD 61 officials.

Then, see what SAD 61 thinks.

Before that happens, Peabody along with selectmen chairman Greg Watkins and Bear Zaidman and Knight will meet with SAD 61 Superintendent Al Smith to review possible uses to see if the town is on the right track.

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