North Yarmouth selectmen mull new town center proposal

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NORTH YARMOUTH — The town has new potential choices for reshaping its center in the wake of the Wescustogo Hall fire.

The North Yarmouth Economic Development and Sustainability Committee on Tuesday presented the Board of Selectmen with a multi-part recommendation for how to develop the municipal properties in the town center, a concept that had to be revised in the wake of the Aug. 29 Grange hall blaze.

Voters at Town Meeting in June approved the first phase of the panel’s initial development proposal, which involved spending more than $150,000 for installation of a sidewalk from the fire barn to Wescustogo Hall, along with a path from the hall to an approximately 70-foot bridge that would span Toddy Brook ravine.

A trail was to lead from there to Town Hall, connecting both sides of the town property with pedestrian access. The thinning of trees near Town Hall was also planned to improve views of that structure from the road.

But the fire that destroyed the 1950s-era former Grange hall on Walnut Hill Road forced the committee to re-evaluate its plan. The panel presented five options at an Oct. 17 forum at North Yarmouth Memorial School, and afterward considered feedback for a recommendation for the town.

The bridge is not part of the committee’s latest proposal, although the sidewalk and tree work are included.

“If we want to get economic development to go in the center of town, you have to know you’re in the center of town,” Bill Hopkins, an architect who has been part of the town center planning process, told the Board of Selectmen. “… The Town Hall, as we have it right now, is fairly buried inside the woods. It’s not lit, and (there is) very little signage.”

The panel calls for the now-vacant Wescustogo Hall lot to be offered to the North Yarmouth Historical Society, so that the group could either move the Old Town House there from Route 9, and use it for storage and meetings, or raise funds to construct a new building on the site.

Insurance proceeds from Wescustogo Hall should be used to build a new structure, either attached to or near Town Hall, the proposal says. It would function in the same way as Wescustogo Hall, where events like elections, meetings and weddings were held.

Parking would need to be expanded on the site to facilitate the added usage, Hopkins said.

A new entry way would allow this structure to be accessed by both Routes 9 and 115.

The committee also calls for the town to partner with a developer to “redevelop Memorial School as either elderly housing or a co-working/office sharing site,” according to a document the panel submitted to the town.

“As part of this effort, (the town would) preserve rights to public spaces on the Memorial School parcel, such as the baseball field,” the document states. As we discuss options with the developer, we can determine whether the Town can preserve certain uses to the interior of the Memorial School building, such as the gymnasium.”

Hopkins noted the gym’s value, pointing out that if it removed it, the town would lose an asset. He also noted the community support the gym has had.

“Because it exists, we feel that we should encourage it to go on,” he said. “… It can be separated from any development, we feel, of the old school. If it goes into housing, if it goes into a commercial use, it can be isolated from everything else.”

The school, built in 1976, is due to close next June. Its students will be moved to an expanded Greely Middle School in Cumberland.

“We’d like to send out the signal that we’re open for business” at the school, and ask for ideas, economic development committee member David Perkins told selectmen, noting that his group has heard interest from developers.

“I feel you’re … on the right track to getting us to the end (of the process),” Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, told committee members. “The end is a long way down the road, I know, but the parts that are pulling together are very important and can soon happen.”

Selectmen will vote at a later time on accepting the school, which the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors voted Dec. 2 to transfer to the town.

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

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.