North Yarmouth hearing gives Wescustogo project mixed reviews

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NORTH YARMOUTH — With a town referendum four weeks away on whether to rebuild Wescustogo Hall and renovate a pared-down North Yarmouth Memorial School, opinions on the project were mixed at a public hearing this week.

A $3.43 million bond for the project, discussed at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, goes to voters June 12.

Fire destroyed the former Route 115 Grange in 2013. Parking limitations at the site, which neighbors the Village Green, largely prompted town officials to eye the former NYMS property on Memorial Highway (Route 9) as a new location. 

Barrett Made, a Portland-based design and build company, has worked with the Wescustogo Building and Design Committee to develop a community center composed of a partly-demolished NYMS, retaining the gym, stage, kitchen and hallway areas. A new Wescustogo would be viewable from the corner of Memorial Highway and Parsonage Road, and connected through a lobby.

A 3D tour of the exterior and interior of the complex is posted at https://bit.ly/2v2ovW8.

“I don’t think we can afford this plan,” said Paul Napolitano of Mill Ridge Road, noting the tax rate increase – $1.71 per $1,000 of property valuation – if next year’s proposed School Administrative District 51 budget passes.

He expressed concern about a Wescustogo bond being added to SAD 51 borrowing to build the Greely Center for the Arts in Cumberland, and other work on district schools being needed in the coming years.

Clark Whittier of Walnut Hill Road – like Napolitano a former selectman – spoke in support of rebuilding Wescustogo, and suggested that those concerned about the impact from school taxes vote the SAD 51 budget down at the Thursday, May 17, district budget meeting.

He acknowledged his part, the last two or three decades, in trying to keep the town’s budget low, adding “I’m sick of us having nothing, and the school having everything.”

If the project fails at the polls, “you’re never going to get anybody on a committee for any future building,” and NYMS will continue to deteriorate, Whittier said.

He had blunt words concerning the Wescustogo Grange Hall Association, which turned the original building over to the town per a 1997 agreement.

“Wescustogo, if it goes down (at the polls), I would hope that you’d just bank the (insurance) money until the 27 years are up, because there was never any time frame in that, and screw the Wescustogo group,” Whittier said.

A Planning Decisions report at northyarmouth.org references the 1997 agreement, noting that if the original building became destroyed or damaged, “the Town shall replace it with another which will serve the same function of a meeting hall with a large open room, kitchen and dining facilities.”

“After the year 2025, the Townspeople, through an annual town meeting or public referendum, may by a majority vote change the use of the property if it is determined to be no longer necessary for the use for which it is being conveyed to the Town,” the pact also states.

Whittier noted that there is no time limit on rebuilding the structure.

Katie Murphy of Mountfort Road called the issue a tough one, saying she leans toward voting no despite her respect for the project’s building and design group.

She referred to a March 5 capital needs assessment of all North Yarmouth facilities, produced for the town by Criterium Engineers, which rates the back wing of the school – due for demolition should the referendum pass – as being largely in “good” condition.

Meanwhile, the Town Office is in dire need of renovation, reconstruction or relocation, residents have said.

“We are seriously behind in keeping all of our facilities up to date; we’re going to be having to spend a lot of money to get them in shape,” Murphy said. She used the analogy of a house being eyed for an addition before necessary repairs in the existing structure are made.

Select Board member Anne Graham said she “feel(s) very strongly that we need to move forward. If this fails, I think it’s a real black eye to our community,” and that people or businesses looking to move to North Yarmouth “will think we just have a community that can’t figure out what they want to do.”

She recalled the nearly five years that have passed since she saw “that burned hulk” that was the smoldered Wescustogo, and wanting the community to rally together and rebuild it immediately, “but … it’s not that easy in town government. We have had multiple, multiple hurdles, we have compromised, we have worked hard.”

Graham praised the work of the Wescustogo rebuild group, saying the town has “an excellent design, an excellent example of community coming together to make something happen.”

A multi-use facility, the new Wescustogo would mix athletic and community events for all ages, along with town-sponsored activities, all to take place simultaneously in multiple sections of the 17,000-square-foot building, according to Wescustogo Committee Chairman Brian Sites.

The total project cost of $3.67 million would be offset by nearly $431,000 in insurance funds remaining from the original Wescustogo Hall. A 7 percent additional contingency of about $224,000 is included in the bond amount.

The project also has a fundraising goal of $250,000.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.