Jun 202011

Just a week after a Special Town Meeting overwhelmingly decided not to buy Sacred Heart Church as the site for a new central fire station, the second round of discussions over if, when, where, and what kind of fire station will be built is starting.

The Sacred Heart site, at 279 Main Street, was the top choice of the Board of Selectmen, Town Manager, and an ad hoc Central Fire Station Site Selection Committee. But voters rejected the town’s $450,000 purchase and sale agreement with the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic church by a margin of 183-103.

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The site ranked second by the site selection committee is property owned by the Groton Electric Light Department on Station Avenue, where the town-owned utility will build a new office and garage complex. GELD management and Board of Commissioners are promoting the site as suitable for both their building and a central fire station and have projected substantial savings to the town by developing the two projects in tandem.

GELD kicks off its building project today (Monday, June 20,) with its first meeting with the Maguire Group, the design and engineering firm chosen to architect GELD’s new complex. According to Kevin Kelly, manager of GELD: “One of the things that I’m going to ask them to do on Monday is to prepare estimates of things that we can do with the portion of the site that would be declared surplus, (tasks) that would be of benefit whether or not the fire department comes here or not.”

GELD plans to use the site survey work by the Maguire Group to gather as much information about the entire site as possible. That information should answer committee and TM questions about whether the GELD site can support a fire station in addition to the GELD complex. If the preliminary engineering work shows that a station could be built on the site, the site engineering work would apply to a future fire department project and would bolster GELD’s one-big-project-is-cheaper-than-two-small-ones argument.

“If the fire department comes there, it’s done, and it’s a benefit to the town. If we sell it as a commercial property, then it would be something that we’d expect to build into the price. Even if it goes commercial five or 10 years from now, the topographical surveys, the geo-technical investigation, all those things — those have to be done regardless,” Kelly said.

Folks at the other end of Station Avenue, in Town Hall, are waiting just as eagerly for the site survey results. The Board of Selectmen is interested in finding out how viable the site is. The town Finance Committee, which withdrew its support from the Sacred Heart purchase because of unanswered questions about all the sites, is eyeing the cost, and cost savings, of co-operating with GELD. Town Manager Mark Haddad is interested both in using GELD as a potential fire station site and the fallout from that — how the GELD complex, a potential fire station, or both, may impact the town’s stagnant Station Avenue redevelopment effort. And of course the Fire Department management and staff are interested, because they want to replace their obsolete central station.

The town’s freshly-appointed Building Committee will also be interested. June 6, after a public hearing on the fire station sites concluded, the Board of Selectmen approved Town Manager Mark Haddad’s annual list of committee appointments. One of those is the Building Committee, an ad hoc committee that serves a one-year term and is only active when a building project is planned or under way.

Haddad chose Michael Bouchard (Town Clerk), Susan Daly (a Groton firefighter), Jeremy Januskiewicz, Halsey Platt, and Val Prest to staff the committee. Daly, Januskiewicz, and Prest are veterans of the Central Fire Station Site Selection Committee, which will disband at the end of June. The Building Committee begins its one-year term on July 1.

He explained his picks this way: “Halsey Platt; he’s a local builder and a good man. I liked working with Val Prest and Jeremy and Susan on the fire station (site selection) committee, and I think they bring a good perspective in what’s needed in a fire station. And then I wanted to have a town employee involved. So I approached Mike Bouchard because Mike also has a contractor’s license, so I figured, that makes sense. Here’s somebody who’s a builder who knows his stuff so let’s get him on there as well. So that’s the committee. I think they’ll do an outstanding job working with me and the selectmen and the fire chief.”

Haddad and the Building Committee are both at somewhat of a disadvantage in evaluating the GELD site, or any other site, in that they have no budget. They have to depend on other groups or people passing along accurate information that they can evaluate.

“You have to remember something: I don’t have any money. So I’m going to have to depend on the Electric Light Department to assist in that evaluation. Electric Light and its architects will be determining whether, and how, its site can be used for a joint development project,” he said. “At this point, the GELD site is going to be the only one under evaluation. Town Meeting rejected the purchase (of Sacred Heart) the other night, and you have to respect the wishes of Town Meeting. I think, based on the comments, some of them were just dead-set against that church site, especially the abutters in the area who were just adamantly opposed to a fire station there. And I think a lot of the comments made by people who spoke were in support of Jay Prager’s (Finance Committee) position, which was ‘We don’t have enough information available to know whether the GELD site makes sense.'”

The FinCom’s other important question, “Why now?” seems to be answered by the marketplace. Consideration of the Sacred Heart site was initially driven because it was for sale at a price below its appraised value. The interest in the GELD site is driven by the potential for joint development cost savings if the fire station is built in roughly the same time window as the GELD complex.

Kelly pointed out that the Maguire Group specializes in fire station designs, and hopes that it would be cheap and easy to see if a joint project is viable. “Once we’re at the conceptual stage, without getting into our fire station needs specifically, we can drop one of their existing 14,000 square foot fire stations — I think in Worcester they recently did a 14,000 square foot fire station — but then we can just drop a generic wire-frame fire station that was built in the last five years on to our conceptual plan to see how it would work. Before we go to talk to the Conservation Commission.”

Kelly said that GELD plans to break ground for its complex by next April, with or without the fire station as a co-operative development. “I would expect that we would know by fall Town Meeting whether or not it was going to happen. Then, if the Fire Department doesn’t get a blessing at fall Town Meeting, we just go forward, and whatever happens with the Fire Department happens with the Fire Department.”