FREEPORT — Town officials and stakeholders seem to agree that when it comes to the future of the former B.H. Bartol Library, the “right plan is a lot better than the fastest plan.”
The town is working on a request for proposals to see what potential renters may have in mind for the space after the building was vacated at the end of last year. Town councilors gathered input in a Jan. 8 workshop.
Town Manager Peter Joseph said he hasn’t heard from any individual or group pushing a specific proposal. Rather, people have just been “bouncing ideas around,” Joseph said.
However, what’s been uniform in most of his conversations, he said, is a “strong plea” from the community to “retain and protect what’s historic and iconic about the building.”
According to the Maine Historical Society, the Classical Revival-style building designed by Portland architect George Burnham was built in 1906. It was named for benefactor Barnabas Henry Bartol, a Freeport native and engineer.
The library at 55 Main St. closed in 1997, when the town built Freeport Community Library. The building later housed retailers, and was most recently occupied by Abercrombie & Fitch, which on Dec. 31 vacated the space after about 18 years of occupancy.
The town owns the building, but Joseph said he didn’t see a pressing public use for the space, nor do town staff recommend selling it.
Although Joseph said the exterior of the building could use a little maintenance, the interior of the building is in good shape and could be immediately filled by another retailer.
According to Town Assessor Bob Konczal, the property is valued at $2.3 million.
Abercrombie & Fitch was paying about $350,000 annually in rent, Joseph said, and although the town offered to negotiate the lease, there was no interest from Abercrombie & Fitch because it “wasn’t profitable for them.”
Economic Development Director Keith McBride said he doubts the town could get someone to pay that much again.
“Despite my interest in some of the nonprofits and community uses … if that ($350,000) comes up again, that’s really hard to turn down,” he said. “I just don’t see that happening.”
Although McBride said there are several vacant commercial properties on Main Street, some longstanding, he does not feel this “reflects a brick-and-mortar retail (decline).”
He noted the former Tommy Hilfiger store, now occupied by Patagonia, became a “landmark” for the “false narrative that retail is dying” in Freeport.
“It’s not,” McBride said. Rather, he sees the state of outlets and brick-and-mortar retail, challenged by online discounters,as going through a transition.
“It takes a different mindset and type of retail to survive in this economy,” McBride said. “… It took the right, innovative business to fill (the former Tommy Hilfiger space).”
Still, many at last week’s meeting said the town should recognize there is a shift taking place, and fill the former library space with a sustainable use that would benefit the community in ways that aren’t monetary.
“(There’s) public benefit of the use, rather than who can we get in there to pay the rent immediately,” Joseph said.
Council Chairman John Egan added that the “right plan is a lot better than the fastest plan.”
Some said the RFP should encourage uses that create an “experience” for visitors and residents alike.
“There are still people that visit. … Those numbers remain steady,” McBride said. “Shopping destinations are turning into an experience … This is an opportunity to enhance what’s special about Freeport.”
According to Joseph, another “cause for concern” is the building’s size. At about 7,500 square feet, with 5,000 feet of usable retail space, he said it might be hard to find a retailer able to fill the two-story building.
Hannah Gathman, coordinating director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport, suggested a shared space in the building to serve as a community hub, particularly for the arts, including uses such as a visitor’s center, gallery, micro-retail, and an area to host workshops, receptions, classes and demonstrations.
“We’re cognizant that the monetary value attached to solely brick-and-mortar retail is shifting,” Gathman said. “… We hope the RFP process gives the opportunity for multiple entities to collaborate and that it is built around a rubric that can weigh those values outside of the immediate rental income, which we know is incredibly valuable, but not necessarily the most sustainable.”
Jim Cram, executive director of the Freeport Historical Society, encouraged the idea of a “cultural hub” and suggested a portion of the building could be used as museum space.
Former Councilor Peter Anzuini recommended working in the interest of citizens over the age of 65 and on fixed incomes, proposing an RFP that allows for medical offices or health clubs.
At this point, Joseph said, the town is not ruling anything out.
“While we’re bummed out by the financial loss,” he said, “We’re excited about the use opportunity.”
Freeport town officials are crafting a request for proposals for the future use of the historic Bartol Library building at 55 Main St. After 18 years, Abercrombie & Fitch last month gave up its lease on the building.