February 26, 2020

Old Town debates site for new city offices

OLD TOWN – While residents are concerned with maintaining the city’s sense of community, city councilors appear to be focusing on the dollar amounts associated with finding a new site for the municipal offices.

Residents said at Monday night’s council meeting they were under the impression that the former Helen Hunt School, located at the center of town, already had been chosen as the relocation site for the offices.

The council, however, previously voted down the option after bids to renovate the building came in $1.3 million higher than originally anticipated.

The former H.E. Sargent School, located at the outskirts of town, is being considered as another option. A recent feasibility study showed that the site would cost about $1 million less to renovate than the Helen Hunt building.

“We’re trying to do everything that we can to keep the tax [rate] down,” Council Chairman Alan Stormann said. The Helen Hunt option wouldn’t do that, according to the chairman.

“I think we all recognize that this is a challenge both financially and in terms of physical space,” Old Town resident Sara Lindsay said. She stressed a need to consider the ramifications to the community if city offices are moved to the outskirts of town.

New municipal offices have been discussed in Old Town for about 20 years, but extensive work to find a suitable site only occurred in about the last year due to time constraints.

The town is running out of time to spend the approximately $2 million in bond and grant money allocated for new office space.

“We need to start making some decisions pretty quick,” Stormann said.

The council was presented last month with an unofficial petition containing about 75 signatures in favor of a public hearing on the issue.

“It’s a bad idea to think about moving our offices out of town,” Carol May of Old Town said at Monday’s public hearing. “If we move to Stillwater, we’re never coming back.”

Residents were provided a sheet that briefly compared the costs associated with renovating each building, but some were upset that copies of the actual feasibility studies were not available.

“We’ll see if we can make a copy of what we have available here at the library,” Stormann said.

Speaking as a resident, not as the state representative for the area, Matt Dunlap noted that the numbers and details presented to residents were “fuzzy” and did not paint a clear picture of what the options are.

“The city council needs to better articulate its plans for old school buildings,” Dunlap said. “We need to take a long look at what our goals are going to be.”

Some residents suggested selling one site to help pay for renovations at the other. Deed restrictions prevent the city from doing so, City Manager John Lord said.

Another suggestion was to scale back the renovations to make the project more affordable. That also is impossible, according to councilors and representatives from Ames A/E, the company that conducted the feasibility studies.

“There’s not a whole lot of fluff in there,” Councilor Scott Cates said. The renovations cited are required to meet ADA and life safety regulations.

The council still is exploring a variety of options, including building a new municipal office, Stormann said.

“Each one of these brings its challenges,” he said.

The council already has voted not to accept the Helen Hunt site, but “we may revisit that,” the chairman said. No decision has been made regarding the H.E. Sargent School.

“I don’t disagree with those of you who spoke,” Cates said. “There’s a lot more to the issue than just the emotion of keeping the city offices downtown.”

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