SOUTH PORTLAND – With a potential move to Mahoney Middle School “seven to 10” years away, South Portland officials have elected instead to put the best face possible on the City Hall building at 25 Cottage St.

Last week, workers from Bath-based Eliot Mead Carpenter Contractor Inc. began work on a $165,000 roof repair and fac?ade improvement project designed to dress up the 1898 structure, which the city has called home since 1931. South Portland sent 80 solicitations for the work, with Mead’s bid the lower of just two received.

The roof repairs fix sections ranging from 20 to 30 years old, but the fac?ade work is largely cosmetic, meant to create a better visual blend between the original building and its 1979 addition when seen from the rear parking lot, which most residents use as the main entrance.

Meanwhile, the school district is slowly moving forward with its long-term plan to consolidate the city’s two middle schools, which would open the way for Mahoney Middle School to become the new City Hall.

In recent years the city has looked repeatedly to replace City Hall, claiming the old building is expensive to heat and maintain while also being too small, even with the 1979 wing addition, for its needs, forcing repatriation of the planning department to the old Hamlin School at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets. The City Council has eyed the former armory building, a Waterman Drive office that’s now home to the Housing Authority, and an adjacent site at 148 Ocean St., but has repeatedly come back to Mahoney.

The oft-cited plan involves the school department replacing Memorial Middle School on Wescott Street in a size large enough to house all 730 students in grades 6-8, then gifting Mahoney to the city.

In 2010, the renovations required to make that change were pegged at $4.4 million. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the council “ultimately conceded” and gave its backing to a new high school as the top priority, which voters similarly supported that November by approving a $41.5 million bond.

The city’s new “No. 1 priority” is a $17 million public works facility, designed to also house the public transportation and parks departments, on Highland Avenue. With that in mind, Gailey acknowledged May 21, when the council awarded the City Hall contract to Mead by first questioning the logic of investing in a fac?ade the city hopes to eventually abandon, “We’re probably going to be here for quite some time.”

Last week, when the council voted to put off a referendum on the public works garage until November 2013, Councilor Tom Blake questioned if the delay could cause the middle school/City Hall switch to leapfrog back to the front of the capital improvement line.

However, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said at a school board retreat that, “We understand the public works facility comes first.”

Even so, she said, the school board does plan to reconstitute its old secondary schools committee, which morphed into the high school building committee as that project took precedence. That should happen, she said, “sometime this fall.”

But that does not mean the board plans to fast track middle school consolidation ahead of public works, said Godin. Unlike the high school project, which forged ahead without state funding, any middle school works is dependent on it.

“My best guess, just throwing dates at the wall, is that that’s at least seven to 10 years away,” Godin said last week.

Mahoney Middle School is No. 14 on the Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital Improvement Program Priority List. Memorial Middle School is ranked No. 55.

Although Mahoney, created as a high school in 1924, with a major renovation in 1937, is in better physical shape than Memorial’s mid-century construction, it was built, said Godin, in an age that makes it tough to wire for modern technological needs.

The purpose of the new committee, she said, will be to create a merged plan for the two schools that just might jump a single project up a few notches on the state funding list.

A rendering prepared by Port City Architecture of Portland shows how the rear façade of South Portland City Hall will look following a $165,000 renovation now under way. (Courtesy image)

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