Bridgton Town Hall repairs revisited

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

After voters told them to restore it…after paying for a structural engineering study…after agonizing over how to pay for it…

Is now the time to reconsider whether Bridgton’s historic Town Hall is worth saving?

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz thought so Tuesday, even going so far as to float the idea of demolishing the historic building at 26 North High Street where recreation and Town Meetings take place. And while the consensus among Selectmen was against demolition, the board agreed to let Berkowitz craft several scenarios to take before voters at the June Town Meeting.

The topic came up as Berkowitz asked the board to reconsider its earlier decision to earmark $108,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to help cover the estimated $325,000 it will take to stabilize the turn-of-the-century building. The board had also proposed asking voters to approve around $200,000 in borrowing for the repairs, seen as one of this year’s most pressing municipal projects.

“We should also ask if this is the only course of action,” said Berkowitz, noting that none of that money would go toward insulation and energy-efficiency improvements. “Just to heat that building cost us $21,000 last year — and what will the price of oil be in three years?”

As he thought further about the project, he said, “Why not take $50,000 to demolish Town Hall, and design a fully-functional building, closer to the road, to take full advantage of parking?” Berkowitz said he realized such thinking “goes against the vote,” taken in 2011 in a nonbinding referendum, in which voters favored the option of spending up to $400,000 to make basic structural repairs.

In order to truly modernize the building for operational efficiency, “It would take $750,000 by the time you’re done,” said Berkowitz, and with that being the case, the town might be better off tearing it down and building something new. And if the town uses CDBG funding on the building, under the grant’s rules, “You own it for life,” he said.

Two audience members were quick to praise Berkowitz for his thinking.

“That’s a bold plan,” said Chuck Renneker, a member of the Community Development Committee. But he suggested taking the idea further, and consider building “a true community center” that would serve not only the needs of recreation but also other functions like those now met by the Bridgton Community Center on Depot Street.

Fellow CDC member Mark Lopez agreed with the “bold plan” assessment, telling Berkowitz, “I applaud you for it.” Lopez said taxpayers are facing an increase of between 40 and 50 cents on the mil rate, and noted that the annual heating costs for Town Hall account for 2.1 cents of the tax rate. “Even after we put the money into (the Town Hall), that building still isn’t functional for recreation,” Lopez said. “There’s a lot better ways to spend this money.”

Selectman Bob McHatton emphasized the need to “go to the people” before taking any definitive action.

“There’s a lot of people not in this room who do not want that building torn down,” he said.

Lopez countered that “If the building is that sentimental, you could leave the building” and just have Town Meetings there, but have a new facility that, unlike Town Hall, could be located within the boundaries of the TIFF District so as to take advantage of those funds.

“Talk about the 12th hour,” said Selectman Paul Hoyt, referring to the board’s nearly-finalized plans for financing the $325,000 in structural repairs as recommended by a engineering consultant who prepared a detailed report. Even if recreational activities are moved elsewhere, or a new facility is built, the town will still need to pay to repair the building if residents want to save it, he said.

“I’m not considering tearing it down,” said Hoyt, especially now that redevelopment plans for the former Memorial School property are in doubt.

Lopez suggested, however, that demolition should still be one of the options available for voters to consider.

Resident Bill Vincent noted that “quite a few beautiful historic buildings have been torn down” in the downtown area over the years. “You’ve got that beautiful building sitting up there, not hurting anybody. You can’t really put a price on history.”

Selectman Ken Murphy said he often hears from other people that Bridgton is lacking in community recreation facilities. “We need a larger facility,” he said. The Town Hall should be kept intact, and could be turned into an art center, he said.

McHatton said the options that would be included on the Town Meeting Warrant should have costs attached, so that voters can see the financial impact of each choice.

Earlier in the meeting, Renneker asked about the status of an offer from Camp Wildwood to have the town lease their gymnasium as an alternative to using Town Hall for high-impact recreation. Berkowitz said he had Recreation Director Gary Colello look into the proposal but decided against it because the Camp Wildwood gym would need to be insulated.

“It’s a gracious offer, but I’m not sure we have the money,” Berkowitz said. The amount of space that would need to be insulated would be “just as expensive” as repairing Town Hall, he added. In addition, Berkowitz did not think the town should be putting money into a facility it does not own, and also noted that the camp owners were requesting preferential tax treatment as compensation.

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