The Board of Selectmen, at its September meeting, agreed to move forward with plans to renovate the old firehouse at the intersection of Center and Newton roads, and to turn the building into a community center. “It’s a lovely building and would make a wonderful gateway to the town center,” said First Selectman Beth Heller in a phone conversation after the vote. The vote followed a presentation by Architect David Stein of Silver Petrucelli, in which he presented potential uses for flex spaces, including meeting space, classroom space, and a fitness center.
The historic building had been damaged in a 2006 fire and had been left unused since. After initial repairs to secure the envelope, the town obtained a STEAP grant last year to upgrade the electric and mechanicals in an otherwise unfinished building. Now they are getting ready to finish the inside.
The decision to turn it into a community center hinged on the decision to move the fire equipment, stored in the building, out and to include a storage shed for the fire department at the back of the new firehouse, a project that has been on hold for several years.
Since its move into the new firehouse, the fire department has been storing some rescue equipment as well as a historic fire truck in the old firehouse. The volunteers of the Fire Association had started construction of a large, 42.5×42.5-foot storage shed on the far side of the parking lot, with a concrete pad already poured, and piping for heat and electrical roughed in. The new proposed shed would double that size, for a total of 3,700 square feet.
The project – including the shed and a sidewalk to the high school – has been part of the town’s six-year capital improvement plan.
According to Stein the estimated price tag for renovating the old firehouse would be just under $1 million; the storage shed would add another $557,000. That cost estimate does not include refurbishing the parking lot at the Old Firehouse, nor furniture.
Finance Director Anthony Genovese presented the board with an overview of the town’s debt service, saying the town will see a dip in its debt level this year, having paid off a 20-year bond stemming from the 2000 soil remediation at the Public Works garage; and the purchase of open space. This will allow the town to bond for the project without increasing the tax burden. Genovese also said with interest rates being at a historic low, this would be a good time to get projects done.
He said the town is contemplating adding some unrelated projects to the bond issue, namely a piece of the Beecher Road School roof that had not been refurbished during the 2014/15 renovation and has been known to leak ($400,000). In addition, the senior center has been waiting for years to update its spaces in the basement of the Center Building. In total the town is contemplating a $2.5 million bond.
The project details still need to be fleshed out before it can go to referendum, Genovese said.
“What we got tonight is a conceptual estimate,” said Selectman Dwight Rowland, whose professional background is in construction. “It still has to be tweaked, and reviewed, including the second floor.”
Amity School District has expressed an interest in leasing the second floor of the firehouse for its Transition Program. This could allow the town to generate some income to offset the cost of outfitting the space.
But at the time the selectmen were discussing the project, the meeting with the Amity school superintendent hadn’t occurred.
“I don’t feel comfortable deciding anything until I know where Amity is,” said Selectman Joe Dey, explaining his dissent. He said he did not want to vote in support of a project “before we know we can afford it.”
Fellow Selectman Dwight Rowland did not agree. He felt the time is right to move ahead with the project. “We’ve been talking about this forever,” he said.
As for keeping the stored fire equipment in the community center to avoid building another structure, Heller said that would not work. “Imagine a class or a meeting happening and then the alarm goes off and the fire trucks drive up to retrieve the equipment. We can’t have two uses in the same building,” she said.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent