Voters give thumbs down to Welcome Center idea

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectmen were shown a conceptual plan June 14 for a new downtown Welcome Center with adult education classrooms, but the next night, Town Meeting voters resoundingly rejected spending any money on the plan.

Selectmen were themselves a bit taken aback by the $1.2 million estimated cost for a complete makeover of the 4 Nulty Street building, now occupied by the Depot Street Redemption Center. Maureen Westrick of Sustainable Architecture was hired by the town to come up with a conceptual plan, and based her estimate on preliminary structural and environmental studies done on the 1940s building.

Town Meeting voters were asked to spend a total of $345,000 on the project, which would include $190,000 to buy the building and land, as well as a parking lot across the street. Selectmen had budgeted an additional $150,000 in renovation costs, which didn’t even come close to Westrick’s $1.2 million estimate.

Westrick told selectmen that her estimate was on the high side, but that the cost might actually be much lower. Her idea was to replace the building with new steel frame construction, using the existing system as a curtain wall. “Or, you could also decide that (the building has) used its life, and start over,” she said. “There’s a lot of possibilities that can be done here.” Not only would it provide much-needed public restrooms for the downtown, but the Welcome Center could serve as a stopover for tour buses.

Selectman Bob McHatton expressed regret at the short seven-week time frame for consideration of the plans.

“It’s too bad we didn’t have more time to work on this,” he said.

Chairman Bernie King didn’t mince words. “I don’t share the vision that other staff have — I just don’t see it.”

The voters speak

As Town Meeting Moderator Richard Dailey began reading the budget warrant articles, newly-elected Selectman Glen “Bear” Zaidman asked that the two spending articles related to the Welcome Center (along with the Home Run Road question) be taken up first, instead of at the end of the warrant. Voters agreed.

Zaidman said there were too many unanswered questions about the project. The town hasn’t fully researched what the final costs would be, he said, or whether tour buses could even make the turn from Main onto Nulty Street, given the existing turning radius.

McHatton said the Community Development Committee recommended developing a tour bus stop, and the board asked Town Manager Bob Peabody to look into it. Peabody turned it over to Planning Director Anne Krieg, who worked with Westrick on the plans. “One of the responsibilities of the Board of Selectmen is to look at the possibilities” to move forward on ideas that have been bandied about for years, such as restrooms for the downtown, Peabody said.

But residents weren’t buying it.

“We do this year after year after year,” said resident Mark Lopez about the pattern of spending small amounts of money on projects that end up costing more than expected later on. Harry Cross likened it to “spending $350,000 on bathrooms,” since only that aspect of the project was an undisputed need.

Bob Pelletier said that if the town wants to build public bathrooms, a better location would be the Bridgton Community Center on Depot Street. The adjacent town parking lot also has ample room for tour buses, he added.

Susan Hatch received applause when she said. “I didn’t know the town was in the real estate business.” She said tour bus passengers seem to enjoy the current stopover location at the Highland Lake Beach parking lot, where they enjoy a break in a picturesque setting.

After rejecting the project, voters then passed over a proposal to buy the redemption facility, saying the question was moot.

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