Gorham voters approved renovating the Shaw School by a vote of 367 to 330 Tuesday.
“It passed. That’s all we need,” said Town Council Chairman Burleigh Loveitt.
Only 6 percent of Gorham’s more than 11,000 registered voters turned out to cast a ballot on an icy winter day.
“It’s a landslide,” said Loveitt. “Eleven thousand voters decided it was all right with them, and they stayed home.”
The referendum question yesterday asked voters to approve borrowing $5 million to renovate the 67-year-old Shaw School for use as town and school department offices. With interest, the amount would total $7,067,875.
The town also has the $2.4 million approved by voters in the 2003 referendum for a proposal that would have demolished the two older sections of Shaw School. But the town scrapped the plan because it would have cost $800,000 more than the amount voters approved. This week’s referendum earmarked the funds approved two years ago for the new plan coupled with some cash saved on a roofing project at Narragansett School.
If money were left over after rehabbing the Shaw School, voter approval also would have redesigned the present Municipal Center on Main Street for use by police, fire and rescue. It was built three decades ago at a cost of $450,000. Cramped for space, the growing town now houses the fire chief’s office and the Planning Department in portable buildings adjacent to the Municipal Center.
Besides providing needed space that would put town and school offices under one roof, there was sentiment in town to save the former school, which is located in a federal historic district on South Street.
Casting his ballot in District 3 at the middle school, Michael Barden, a local student attending the University of Southern Maine who went to junior high school at Shaw, didn’t want to see the building razed. He voted in favor of the project, and he cited the loss of the historic Union Station, which was demolished years ago in Portland.
“We need to preserve as much history in town as we can,” he said.
Barden’s dad, Richard Barden, a retired pharmacist, graduated from high school from Shaw in 1944, and he voted yes.
Another voter who favored the Shaw renovation was Tina West, who voted in District 3. “I think the town needs that space to expand into,” she said.
In District 2 at the Masonic Building on Cressey Road, Mary Hamel also supported renovating the Shaw School. “I wanted to preserve the building,” she said.
In a light voter turnout on the referendum, a TV camera crew showed up in District 3 during the afternoon but left when no voters showed. The refererendum vote on June 10, 2003, that would have demolished parts of the building was approved by a low voter turnout, 743-438.
This week, only 149 voters had cast ballots by 2 p.m. in District 2. The district warden, Pat Clay, didn’t believe it would be a big turnout with a single-item referendum. And she said some people didn’t know about it.
One a woman, who declined to reveal her name, voted no in District 3. She was upset because she only learned about the referendum on Monday and thought the election was sneaky.
At the Little Falls School where District 1 votes, 163 had voted by 2:30 p.m. Poll workers said a daycare in the building boosted voter numbers there. But, Mary Ellen Sturtevant, who manned the ballot counting machine, took advantage of an afternoon lull to catch up on her knitting with a blanket covering her lap and a coat draped over shoulders to stay warm.
The building was cold. The Little Falls poll workers moved their tables out of the auditorium, where the temperature was only about 60 degrees. They set up in a hallway, which was somewhat warmer, but they donned their coats to stay warm.
Renovating the Shaw School drew criticism from some residents who live on Morrill Avenue and nearby Sylvan Road. Morrill Avenue leads to the high school and parking for the Shaw School and Baxter Memorial Library. They feared that using the Shaw School for town offices would make Morrill Avenue, which doesn’t have sidewalks now, less safe for children walking along it.
The Shaw School was built in 1938 as a high school, and two additions were added in 1950 and 1976. In recent years, it was used as junior high school, but it has been vacant since the fall of 2003 when the middle school opened.