A CLOSER LOOK
For a slide show of the South Portland Armory tour, log on to Current reporter Linda Hersey’s South Portland blog, www.southportlander.com.
Public tours of the South Portland Armory last weekend opened the doors to discussions and dreaming about how the rundown brick building may be used in the future.
At issue is the city’s 2006 purchase of the armory for $650,000. Although the city has eyed the building for government offices, it has yet to hold public hearings on how residents feel about the idea.
Saturday’s open house is a precursor to a public forum that is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the community center.
City Manager Jim Gailey and Assistant City Manager Erik Carson also were on hand during the public tour Saturday to talk with visitors and offer handouts that described the building, which is on 21⁄2 acres.
The city already is using a portion of the building to store public safety vehicles, and may seek to move the Planning Department into a wing of the armory, which is in disrepair.
But some of the residents who toured the darkened building may have other ideas.
One visitor, who peered at the mammoth garage bay, exclaimed to her children that it would make an ideal ice skating rink.
The armory’s interior is dominated by the vehicle storage area, which is the size of a warehouse. There is a second-floor viewing room that overlooks the garage bay, as well as a series of short hallways and small rooms.
In addition to the vehicle storage area on the first floor, there is a large room facing Broadway, with block glass windows and a tiled floor. Several interior walls appeared to have water stains.
Former City Councilor David Jacobs, who walked through the World War II-era building, said he thinks its design is more suited for a convention center than city offices.
Jacobs said he would like to see a public-private partnership that would allow for a convention center with a banquet hall and meeting space.
He noted that South Portland lacks an area for large business meetings, and believes the armory’s development as a convention center would boost business.
Councilor Tom Blake. who also walked through the armory Saturday, said he’s comfortable with using the garage bay for vehicle storage for the police and fire departments.
Blake, a retired firefighter-paramedic, said that the fire department has needed more storage space for years. Rescue vehicles and equipment recently purchased with homeland security funds also need storage space.
Blake said that now may not be the time for the city to be moving to new offices.
But he believes Mahoney Middle School would make more sense as local government offices, if the school department moves to consolidate its two middle schools – Mahoney and Memorial.
Municipalities are under pressure to consolidate schools to save money. School officials have talked about building a single, larger school where Memorial is located now.
Councilor Maxine Beecher also walked through the armory. She has suggested that the city invest money in initial renovations of the building.
A limited survey of the building by Oest Associates concludes that the armory’s roofs leak and should be repaired soon to prevent further damage to the building. No cost estimates were given.
The engineering company also noted that while the building met construction standards in place 60 years, it is not in compliance today. The firm said that all the roofs inspected failed to meet code, including for bearing snow.
Residents who walked through the building noticed a strong, musty odor. The building appeared gutted, with wiring hanging from the ceilings and doors cracked or broken. The front steps to the armory are crumbling. Windows looked leaky, with some glass cracked.
Developer Andrew Ingalls recently offered to sell the city his new, four-story office building on Waterman Drive for a cost that is comparable to renovating the armory. He noted that his building is in “move-in condition” and is easy to access, unlike the armory, which is next to the intersection leading to the Casco Bay bridge.
Bill Laidley, a resident who has criticized the city’s purchase of the armory, stood outside the brick building Saturday, holding a sign of protest.
The sign, written in marker, stated: “This is your money pit. $650,000 invested – $4-$6 million to go.”
Laidley said he wants to provoke community discussion and encourage the public to debate whether the city needs new government offices.
Although the armory has several fine architectural details, Laidley said he does not think it is suited for renovations as a new City Hall.