WESTBROOK – The city is solidifying plans for reusing the soon-to-be-vacant junior high school, including relocating City Hall from Main Street.

The Wescott Junior High School Reuse Committee has voted to recommend moving forward with a plan to move the recreation department, social services agencies and City Hall offices into the building, located on Bridge Street.

“To really make this work, in terms of the least impact to the taxpayers, we’d have to relocate City Hall to the junior high school,” said Jim Violette, co-chairman of the reuse committee.

The old junior high building is in need of about $4 million in renovations, including a new heating system, roof repairs and window and door replacements. The sale of the current City Hall property – about 5.7 acres off Main Street assessed at $2 million – could fund half the cost.

The city has also been going after grants and hopes to secure about $1 million to help pay for the renovations, leaving another $1 million to be paid through a municipal bond.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said he’s had preliminary conversations with people interested in buying the current City Hall property and turning it into a hotel, a medical facility or an office building.

But ultimately, it will be up to Mayor-elect Colleen Hilton to decide which pieces of the committee’s recommendations she’d like to implement. Hilton said more assessments are needed about what uses would best fit the building before she could make a final decision.

“Moving our current City Hall may make sense, provided we could find a buyer for the Main Street building to help offset the cost to renovate the school,” Hilton said. “Whatever we do will be dependent upon the economics of a potential move.”

According to Bryant, the recreation department, which is currently located on Foster Street, will move into the old junior high as soon as it’s vacant. However, Bryant said, other tenants wouldn’t move in until at least next summer, after some of the renovations are made.

Both local and outside organizations are being considered as tenants for the old junior high, including the Westbrook Historical Society, the Westbrook Food Pantry, Southern Maine Agency on Aging and the Boys & Girls Club.

Donna Conley, president of the historical society, said though the junior high building isn’t as rich in history as the group’s current home on Dunn Street, amenities like handicapped access and a sufficient sprinkler system make it a more attractive location.

“If there was a fire, it’s gone,” she said about the collection of thousands of pictures, documents and artifacts housed in the American Legion Hall building, which doesn’t have sprinklers.

Conley said the historical society has been located on Dunn Street for about 8 years and, during that time, has lost some of its less mobile members.

The only ramp into the building leads up to a locked door, so anyone who needs to use it has to make prior arrangements to come visit the historical society, which is located at the top of a daunting set of stairs. A chairlift can carry visitors most of the way up, Conley said, but there are four stairs left to conquer after the chairlift stops, preventing wheelchair-bound people from being able to access the collection.

If the historical society moves into the junior high, Conley said, “I’m sure we’d have more people come.”

Hilton said she’s excited about the possibilities the vacant building will afford the city.

“I’m pleased by the work the reuse committee has done to help to frame up a vision for the space,” she said.

The reuse committee also voted to continue looking into building an ice arena and 50-meter pool at the site, but, according to Violette, those plans will be dependent on being able to solicit funding.

“It could be years until we could make something like that a reality, he said.

Still, Violette is pleased with the plan that’s in place and is optimistic about what the building will be able to bring to the city and its residents.

“I just think it’s the right thing to do – to create a municipal facility to benefit as many taxpayers as possible, instead of just letting it fall apart,” he said.

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