GARDINER — Building codes didn’t give Clare Marron a choice: She had to put a sprinkler system in her downtown building, and now she’s especially glad she did.

That’s after a fire ripped through 235 Water St. on July 16 and swept across three connected buildings, displacing 12 tenants in a setback to Gardiner downtown revitalization efforts. Fire Chief Al Nelson said almost all of the damage could have been prevented with a sprinkler system that the building didn’t need to meet codes.

The building was just down the street from Monkitree, the art gallery and shop that Marron and her partner own and live above. After they moved into the building in 2009, they put in a sprinkler system that now covers the basement, first and second floors. They plan to expand it to the now-gutted third and fourth floors that they hope to eventually live in.

That wasn’t cheap. Marron said they’ve spent $18,000 so far. She said she understands why the cost “seems outrageous” to many building owners who aren’t forced to do it.

“But it could save lives, not to mention property,” she said, “and when you’re looking at a historic downtown like this, where the buildings are so close together, the danger is real.”

After a 2013 fire, Waterville reviewed sprinkler systems and code compliance, and public officials say conversations about similar moves are likely in Gardiner and Hallowell. That’s welcomed by Richard McCarthy, Maine’s assistant fire marshal, who pitches the systems as an economic development tool for businesses and communities, especially downtowns.

“You look at downtown Gardiner now. They’ve lost rental income from the tenants, the businesses,” he said. “Those are things that could have been saved.”

SPRINKLER SPECIFICS LACKING

Sprinklers are governed by state laws, policies and the Maine Life Safety Standard which has required them in most new apartment buildings since 1991. In many cases, older buildings may not need them. However, cities and towns can have higher standards and McCarthy said at least six, including Portland and South Portland, have established them.

Some U.S. cities have established programs to incentivize sprinklers in downtowns, but McCarthy said there’s no sprinkler-specific program at the state or local levels in Maine. The fire marshal’s office issues permits for sprinklers and has issued 295 this year.

McCarthy likened sprinklers to “having a firefighter in your building 24/7,” but some see them as an obstacle.

Downtown landlords may see extra eyes after the Gardiner fire. Hallowell Mayor Mark Walker has invited Maine Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas and Fire Chief Mike Grant to an August City Council meeting with a goal of looking to “see if we’re doing everything we should be doing.”

The city is no stranger to downtown fires. The popular Slates Restaurant on Water Street was destroyed in a 2007 blaze, but it was rebuilt – with a sprinkler.

Gardiner Mayor Thomas Harnett said it would be “foolish not to raise the issue.”

“I’ll be honest with you. This wasn’t on my radar before this,” he said. “It takes a catastrophe, sometimes, to think about things like this, and that’s unfortunate.”