2017-10-26 / Front Page

Community center’s future is unsure

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Biddeford City Council approved a short term fix for the J Richard Martin Community Center, but a lengthier discussion will be necessary to determine how best to handle the almost 130-year-old building.

At the Tuesday, Oct. 17 meeting, councilors voted unanimously to spend $40,000 to hire Jim Godbout Plumbing & Heating to replace a boiler that failed in August. The failed boiler, along with one still working, were installed in 1999 and 1998 respectively. The boilers provide steam heat to radiators throughout the building using a series of pipes that date back to the 1950s. In a memo to the mayor and city council, the city’s Chief Operating Officer Brian Phinney wrote that the boiler that didn’t fail likely has a similar amount of corrosion to the boiler that will be replaced.

The other option the council could have chosen was a long term solution that would have replaced much of the propane heating system and converted the sprinkler system. That option would have cost $255,000. Phinney said more discussion is needed before a decision can be made to keep facilities at the J Richard Martin Community Center or relocate them.

“Putting in the boiler replacement provides time to have a larger policy discussion,” he said.

In 2005 Oak Point Associates, an architectural and engineering firm from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, evaluated the J. Richard Martin Community Center for improvements to make the building sustainable long term. Recommendations from Oak Point included improvements to the ventilation system, building codes, energy efficiency and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. Phinney said some of the work has been completed, such as gym improvements and a new ADA ramp, but about $1,200,000 of work remains to be finished.

“Support for that kind of investment is why council wants a larger discussion to make sure everyone is on the same page for a long term plan,” Phinney said. “There is a spectrum of options. Replacing the boiler and putting an additional investment in or abandoning the building for sale and purchasing or constructing another building to satisfy the needs of the community center.”

No decision was made during council’s meeting as to what the next step might be.

“Several councilors did voice concern that if this fact finding process is needed, they all agreed it should happen sooner rather than later,” Phinney said. “The next step of forming a committee wasn’t discussed in detail.”

Carl Walsh, recreation department director, said the community center has about six regular tenants that includes Biddeford Adult Education, National Guard and Meals on Wheels and is used by 22 different groups in total. The Biddeford Recreation Department is also housed at the community center.

“We’ll certainly want to be able to retain the services we provide,” he said. “It comes down to how do we go about that. We’re going to do what the community wants us to do whether that’s here or elsewhere. We’ll do the best we can with what we got.”

The community center, first built in 1888, began as the high school before being left vacant for a number of years and then used as a recreation hub. The building has three floors and 43,000 square-feet of space.

“It’s a building that has gone through a lot of change over the years,” Walsh said. “Like our programs have to evolve, this building certainly has evolved over the years in terms of how it’s been used.”

Walsh said he doesn’t mind if the building is replaced, as long as the community still has proper access to it.

“So many different people have access to this facility, I think it’s fairly unique,” he said. “There’s so much shared space. It’s a huge benefit to the community. The people of this city have invested in this building for a long time. The community is very fortunate to have a building like this. For the time being I think it will continue to be a strong part of the community as a whole.”

Ward 5 Councilor Victoria Foley, whose ward contains the community center, expects city staff to form a committee on the matter and bring it before the city council within the month. While the discussion around the community center’s future was new to the council, she wants to make sure a plan is in place before anything is decided.

“I think it really brings the community together,” Foley said. “It gives kids a safe place to be and adults a place to connect with one another and learn new skills. It provides space for nonprofit groups that do important work in our community. That’s an important role for the city to have no matter what is decided about the current building.”

A public hearing about the community center is likely but not scheduled as of yet. Foley said it’s a well-used part of the community and enjoys attending classes there as well.

“I would not support any decision on the center that doesn’t take into account what would happen to the organizations already in there,” she said. “It’s important to think about everyone impacted before we make a decision about that building.”

Contact staff writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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