2015-10-30 / Front Page

South Portland needs storage space

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The comedian Steven Wright used to have a bit about materialism – “You can’t have everything,” he would say, “where would you put it?”

That’s sort of the problem in South Portland at the moment. Since buying the former U.S. National Guard armory at 682 Broadway in 2006, the city, which at one time had designs on converting it into a new city hall, has instead used it primarily as a place to store its stuff.

But in February, Topsham-based Priority Real Estate agreed to buy the property for $700,000. It has announced plans to replace the main part of the armory with a gas station, while retaining the historic art deco façade as a café.

It’s taken some time to complete the transaction and much hung on the city rezoning the site to allow for development. But now City Manager Jim Gailey said a closing date is about 60 days away, and that means the city needs to find a new home for the things it has in the armory, mainly belonging to the police and fire departments located next door.

At its Oct. 19 meeting, the city council voted 6-1 to buy a temporary storage shelter from Rubb Building Systems of Sanford. Counting installation and delivery charges, the place for South Portland’s stuff will cost $18,850. The money will be taken from proceeds of the armory sale, Gailey said.

“We have a fair amount of stuff and no place to put it other than out in the snow and ice,” Police Chief Ed Googins said, in making the request.

The project is not being put out to bid, he said, because Rubb is the only company in Maine that can provide the type of shelter the departments are looking for.

“We wanted something durable and Rubb has got an excellent reputation in this state for putting up structures that will withstand Maine weather,” Googins said.

The only opposition to the purchase was Tom Blake, the sole city councilor to have logged career time in either of the departments requesting the building. He was a South Portland firefighter for 26 years before retiring in 2007.

Blake said if the city had planned better, it could have included storage space for the fire and police departments at the planned new public services complex slated to begin construction next year on Highland Avenue.

“My problems are that we’ve been talking about a $14 million facility for several years now,” Blake said, referring to the new complex. “And yet this is really the first I’ve heard that we need to spend $18,000 for storage of limited-use items.

“That’s a fair amount of money and just because we can raise the money does not mean we should,” Blake said.

Blake said he could think of 10 places in the city where the fire and police departments could store items, including evidence, vehicles, parts, lost bikes and emergency equipment. Many might be had for free, he said, pointing to empty Broadway warehouses that belong to Megquier & Jones Inc., which still owes about $23,000 on a $25,000 loan provided by the city at the start of the most recent recession.

However, Gailey and Googins both rejected that idea.

“There are storage items that both the police and fire department need to be able to get at, at a moment’s notice,” Gailey said, suggesting onsite storage as the only option.

Some councilors also suggested the city might soon rack up $18,000 in rent, or else place emergency equipment in jeopardy if put under somebody else’s lock and key.

“God forbid we get into a civil dispute with a landlord who chooses to change the locks just when we need our emergency gear. We need to have total control,” said Councilor Claude Morgan.

In the end, although Councilor Patti Smith also voiced concern about the timing of the request and the lack of a public bid, most took the view of Councilor Brad Fox.

“If this is something the chief supports, I just don’t think it’s is the kind of thing we need to get into detail on,” he said.

So, when will the move take place?

Gailey said in an Oct. 22 email that Priority Real Estate had just that week received a sign-off from Maine Historic Preservation on its renovations plans as well as a traffic permit from the Maine Department of Transportation for the new layout.

Priority’s application before the planning board had been set for next month, but was recently rescheduled to Dec. 8.

“Once the planning board approves and finalizes the façade and pedestrian easement language, we will be closing on the property,” Gailey said.

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