2015-08-28 / Front Page

Cape to demolish Fort Williams bleachers

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — The evolution of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth marches on with the imminent demolition of concrete bleachers once used to observe parade ground exercises during the site’s days as a military base.

From the construction of Portland Head Light in 1791, to establishment of the base in 1872, from purchase of the 90- acre property by the town in 1964 and its establishment as a public park in 1979, and including the ongoing creation of 14 garden arboretum sites begun in 2012, Fort Williams Park, though it may seem to visitors like a place frozen in time, has never stayed the same for very long.

At its Aug. 10 meeting, the town council approved the latest change, scheduled to take place this winter.

According to “A Military History of Fort Williams Maine,” written in 1975 by Cape resident David Adams, the bleachers were a Depression-era project of the Federal Emergency Relief Act, a jobscreation program that was the forerunner of the better known Works Progress Administration. The jobs act paid local laborers to build the bleachers, while the material was “paid for by subscriptions,” according to Adams.

Initially meant as an observation point for military exercises and ceremonies, the bleachers have in more recent years served a ball field built on the former parade ground. Since 1990, they also have played host to each year’s graduating class at Cape Elizabeth High School, whenever the weather has cooperated to allow an outdoor commencement.

However, officials have grown increasingly concerned about the bleachers. There has always been fear of injury, given the unusual height of the risers for each row. But, more recently, the crumbling concrete has given rise to visions of insurance liability.

“It’s not so much the height of the risers as the composition of the concrete,” said Public Works Director Robert Malley. “It was made from beach sand, so it’s not concrete as we normally think of it. It’s very brittle.”

According to Lise Pratt, chairman of the sevenmember Fort Williams Advisory Commission, a solution to the bleacher problem has been the group’s “top priority over the past year.” Although it’s a departure from the master plan for the park approved by the town council in 2012 — which calls for “restoration” of the bleachers — the commission voted 5-2 in May to recommend their removal.

“We considered four different plans over the past year,” she said. “None of them have included keeping, salvaging or repairing the current bleachers. I don’t recall any debate about it. That was a losing battle. All of the plans have included the total demolition and removal of those bleachers.”

The Fort Williams Advisory Commission also ordered plans from landscape architectural firm Mitchell Associates of Portland for a 400 to 600 seat amphitheater to serve as both a replacement, and a new revenue stream for the park, which costs the town nearly $300,000 per year to operate and maintain.

Pratt presented those plans to the council at a June 15 workshop. However, the council reportedly balked at Mitchell’s $489,014 estimate for the project, especially considering it only included demolition of the bleaches, construction of the amphitheater, and rehabilitation of the site. Not yet factored in were electrical upgrades and lighting fixtures — a presumed need for evening performances of various kinds — or potential ledge excavation, stormwater management, the addition of handicapped accessible features, or relocation of the Little League field.

Instead, recognizing the more pressing need to fix the bleachers before somebody gets hurt, the council asked for a phased-in approach. The commission duly voted in that concept at its July 16 meeting, getting a new $86,000 estimate from Mitchell on the bleacher demolition — up from $77,508 in the original estimate. Adding in the cost to remove an asphalt walkway and replace it with a path made of stone dust, plus Mitchell’s engineering fees, brought the project to $118,300.

At its Aug. 10 meeting, Pratt asked the council to release $120,000 from the town’s Fort Williams Park Capital Reserve Fund, a reserve account for special projects separate from routine maintenance funded in the annual town budget. Town Manager Michael McGovern said there was “plenty of money” in that fund — a nest egg he later pegged at $252,178 as of June 30. The annual TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K, staged earlier this month, would have added another $25,000 since then.

However, despite sufficient coin on hand to fund the demolition, McGovern said not everyone was particularly enthused by the idea. One prominent objection came from Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeffrey Shedd.

“He was informed that if (the bleachers) were demolished, he would have to find other alternatives for graduation, and he basically responded that he wasn’t very happy with not having graduation there, that it was a thing that people liked to have,” McGovern said.

With that in mind, the council agreed to retain for now the least decayed easternmost section of the bleachers used by each year’s graduating class. That, McGovern said, based on an opinion from Mitchell Associates, should shave about $15,000 off the initial demolition costs, although retaining that section will add an as-yet undetermined cost to the eventual construction of the amphitheater. More importantly, Pratt said, the risk of a lawsuit remains.

“The message I received at the workshop was that you wanted to take care of the safety issue that existed,” she said. “If you choose to keep this piece there, the liability and safety piece has not been completely eliminated.”

“We’ll look at some temporary repairs,” McGovern said. “My guess is, they will remain in place for a couple more years.”

The council did not respond to the comment, but at least one felt the time for a final vote has not yet come. Although the council did address the issue in June, workshop sessions are not broadcast or recorded, nor are minutes taken. And, while the Fort Williams Advisory Commission has wrestled with the issue for many months, its meetings draw almost no public attendance. Councilor Caitlin Jordan moved to table a vote on the demotion until the council’s September meeting, in order to give the public more time to respond. However, only Councilor Jamie Wagner supported that motion.

“I don’t think we need to wait for public comment. I don’t see this as particularly controversial,” Councilor Jessica Sullivan said, reflecting the majority opinion.

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