November 26, 2013

Great Diamond hotel renovations nearly done before blaze

The extensive damage was ‘devastating’ for the crews working on the historic Great Diamond Island structure.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

GREAT DIAMOND ISLAND — Before fire gutted the Inn at Diamond Cove early Saturday, workers were putting finishing touches on the restored Army barracks in anticipation of an inspection for a certificate of occupancy, the hotel’s owner said Monday.

click image to enlarge

Investigators looked Monday for the cause of the blaze at the Inn at Diamond Cove, which consists of a main building and two wings. About 60 people were interviewed at the Ocean Gateway terminal.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Bill Finney of Great Diamond Island describes seeing the hotel fire from his porch Saturday. “They were doing a really nice job” on renovations, he said. “It’s really unfortunate.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Crews of close to 100 workers had been ferried out to Great Diamond Island each day, laying carpet, painting and installing trim and molding in anticipation of the inspection Dec. 19, said David Bateman. The 44-unit seasonal hotel, where the restoration started in February, was supposed to open for business in late May.

“This is absolutely devastating for the crew that’s been out there working,” Bateman said of the destruction, which Portland officials estimated at $5 million to $9 million.

On Monday, state investigators assisted by members of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Portland Fire Department interviewed more than 60 people at the Ocean Gateway terminal in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the blaze, which was visible for miles and first seen by a Casco Bay Bridge tender at 4:25 a.m.

Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said it could be days or even weeks before investigators determine the cause because of the size of the structure, the extent of the damage and the number of people to interview.

With so many witnesses and workers, the first round of interviews is to determine who might know something of importance and warrant a second interview, said state Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.

KEY PROJECT IN HISTORIC AREA

Late Monday, rolls of brand new carpet, ready for installation, lay on the porch of the 100-year-old barracks, now a brick husk holding a jumble of burnt timbers and twisted metal – the entire roof gone.

Yellow police tape encircled the structure, which consists of a main building and two wings. The remains of a rear foyer overlooked a large swimming pool under construction.

Bateman, the owner and developer, said 65 workers were going out on a ferry Saturday morning and had to turn back because of the fire.

He said he and his partners, who formed an investment group that also owns the Portland Harbor Hotel, will meet to decide their next step. He said the project had ample insurance.

The group has a consultant resubmitting documentation to the National Park Service to determine whether salvage work on the site would still be eligible for historic preservation tax credits. Bateman said he met with structural engineers and an insurance company representative Monday to devise a way to stabilize the building.

“Make no mistake. This is an extremely important project for the community,” he said.

Bateman said the hotel would give the public access to one of the largest historic districts in the state, covering 193 acres, with 30,000 square feet of building area on the National Register of Historic Places.

The former barracks and a nearby hospital building stand in the heart of Diamond Cove, near the central parade ground of the former Fort McKinley. The Army installation operated on the northern end of the Casco Bay island from about 1900 through World War II. Officers’ quarters and accessory buildings have been converted into condominiums.

Bateman said he has been involved in historic renovation at Diamond Cove for 20 years.

SOME OPPOSITION TO THE HOTEL

The city owned the barracks and the hospital building after seizing them from a previous owner for back taxes. Officials tried for years to get someone to redevelop the dilapidated structures, but developers were reluctant to take on the project. City officials pushed for the hotel plan and a zoning change to allow it.

(Continued on page 2)

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