BRUNSWICK — Since buying the former Times Record newspaper building in 2004, the town has considered turning it into a police station, a public television station, Town Council chambers, offices, and a police station (again).
Now, a new proposed use has been added to that list: a combined transportation facility for the Brunswick School Department and School Administrative District 75.
While the Industry Road location was a disadvantage when it was being considered for previous municipal uses, it may be an advantage this time.
School buses already drive down Industry Road to the Public Works Department to fuel up, Town Manager Gary Brown said. And the property is closer to downtown than the existing bus garage, off Columbia Avenue behind the junior high school, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said.
But the real interest in the building is economic, both for the school districts and the town.
If the two school departments combine their facilities, the same mechanics could work on both districts’ vehicles. The districts could also share the costs of maintaining one building, instead of operating separately.
The transportation facility proposal is still just that – a proposal. Neither school board has toured the former Times Record building, nor have they formally discussed the idea.
But if it works out, the town will have finally found a suitable use for a building that has cost it almost $2 million since 2004, and whose purchase some officials and residents believe was a mistake.
“It’s one of two votes I cast in the council that I regard as just not good votes,” said Jacqueline Sartoris, who was a town councilor from 2000 to 2007 and voted in favor of buying the building from the former owners of the Times Record. “This building continues to hang like an albatross around the necks of the council.”
In the summer of 2004, no one would have called the former Times Record building an albatross.
Instead, it was believed to be a very good deal.
The town was shopping around for a new police station and town office, and at nearly $1.28 million, the 28,000-square-foot building was believed to be a lot cheaper to buy than constructing a building of that size.
“There was … a really good price on that facility,” recalled former police Chief Jerry Hinton.
Even if it didn’t work as a municipal building, town officials believed they could easily sell it.
“If we bought it and it didn’t work out, we could use it for other activities, and we could sell it on the market,” explained Don Gerrish, who was the town manager at the time.
The building was believed to be such a good deal, that many Brunswick residents repeatedly urged the council to buy it.
“Even the most vocal people about government spending were in support of us buying it,” Gerrish.
Sartoris said the public input was so intense that “at times it felt like bullying.”
“There were a number of citizens getting up on a pretty much meeting-to-meeting basis and telling the council that we would be stupid not to buy that building,” she said.
Compounding the public pressure was the threat that the Times Record would move its offices to Topsham, where developer John Wasileski was offering the newspaper property.
Sartoris said she felt like the town had to buy the building to keep the newspaper in town.
“We got two kinds of information that helped persuade us to do it,” she said, the comparatively low price of the property, and that “selling the building would enable (the newspaper) to stay in Brunswick.”
But Matt Eddy, the town’s director of economic development from 2003 to 2009, said keeping the newspaper in town was unrelated to the town’s decision to buy the building.
Rather, he said the building’s location appealed to the town.
“Being right next to the Public Works Department, there was some practical reason for obtaining that property, if just for some kind of future use,” Eddy said. “It was always really kind of a no-lose scenario because the property would always have some kind of a value for us.”
Soon after buying the building, it became clear that the initial estimate to renovate it for a combined police station and town office, $1.5 million, was incorrect.
According to John Eldridge, the town’s finance director, the first figure, generated by Norman Architects, was “a generic estimate” of what it would cost to renovate the building for town offices, not for use as a police station.
In reality, the costs were closer to $4.5 million. A study done by SMRT, an architectural engineering firm, found that the building would need a new roof, insulation, floors, ceilings and a fire alarm system. Many exterior doors and windows would also need replacement.
Sartoris later questioned why the actual renovation costs weren’t available to the council before it decided to buy the building.
“We were not given the information we needed to make the best decision on behalf of the town,” she said.
Current council Chairwoman Joanne King said the building had “lots of strikes against it which should have been identified before we bought it.”
But Gerrish defended the decision to buy the building.
“I don’t question what we did, we were prudent in what we did, we talked about the pros and cons,” he said.
Still, he admitted the building hasn’t worked out quite as planned.
“I think certainly people can question it,” he said, but “we did the best we could at the time.”
By June 2006 the town had set aside its plans to use the building as a police station or town office, and was trying to sell or lease it. Six months later, the town found a tenant in Southern Maine Community College, which wanted to lease the building for its budding composites program.
The college had received a federal grant that would cover a three-year lease, which was later extended to four years. After that, the idea was to move to the Brunswick Naval Air Station, where the college had received a number of buildings at no cost.
“Moving to the base was the long-term plan,” SMCC President James Ortiz said.
In order for the college to move into the former newspaper building, extensive renovations would have to be done, at the town’s expense.
Sartoris said that realizing the town would have to spend almost $900,000 on renovations “was when we realized the breadth of our error.”
“When it came time to lease it, and we discovered it was in such need of shoring up and repairs,” she said, “… that was at least for me when the breadth of our mistake was laid bare.”
But the council voted to approve the capital improvement costs.
“We were told the building would have to have that investment made in order to lease it to anybody,” Sartoris said.
Ortiz has a similar recollection.
“The building was in bad shape, and it just had to be brought up to standards,” Ortiz said. “The rent that we paid was to reimburse (Brunswick) for the renovations.”
But the town ended up spending more on renovations than it took in from SMCC.
Between 2006 and 2010, the college paid about $730,000 in rent, and the town spent more than $868,000 on renovations, which does not include the approximately $360,000 spent on operating expenses in the same time period.
Finance Director John Eldridge decline to discuss whether the SMCC lease made financial sense for the town.
Some town officials believed that SMCC was going to eventually buy the building. King said the town would not have spent that much money on a temporary tenant.
“We didn’t think it was just a three-year thing,” she said.
Ortiz said there had been some talk about possibly buying the building, but ultimately the college couldn’t afford it.
“When things were going well, the conversation the continued, but as soon as the recession hit, we were no longer in a position to consider (buying it),” he said.
Neither could the college afford to extend the lease beyond December 2010, when it expired. SMCC is now storing its composites equipment in the building, and awaiting the day when it can move onto the former Navy base.
Ortiz said the town enabled SMCC to get its composites program off the ground, and although the college is moving to the base, it will continue to be an economic driver for the town.
“The college will be a big activity and the town has always recognized that and been very supportive,” he said.
Eddy, the former economic development director, shares that view.
“We managed to get the Advanced Technology Center established, and ultimately the base will be the core of composites training and administration,” he said.
Since last summer, the former Times Record building has been back on the market. It’s listed for $699,000, and there has been one offer, which the town council rejected last October. Brown wouldn’t elaborate on the details of the offer, except to say that the town wasn’t interested.
Whether or not the building would make an appropriate school transportation facility is yet to be determined, but some say it’s an ideal use for a building that hasn’t lived up to expectations.
“Once people actually get in that building, they realize it is not suitable for anything the town would use it for,” Brown said. He added that it “could work” as a transportation facility.
“I think the proposal for use down there as a central garage makes a whole lot of sense,” he said.
The school boards of both districts have yet to tour the facility, and according to Brown, the council would have to approve handing over the building to the School Department.
Either way, the operating costs for the building would still come out of the town budget, either via general funds or the schools.
Some say any use is better than none at all.
“It’s not doing anybody any good,” Perzanoski said, “to have a building sitting there that could be put to good use.”