SOUTH PORTLAND – An environmental assessment has turned up traces of asbestos that will need to be removed before South Portland’s Wilkinson Park clubhouse can be torn down.

Parks and Recreation Director Rick Towle said Friday the cleanup – expected to cost between $5,000 and $10,000 – should not delay demolition of the building, located on New York Avenue, past the initial March 1 timeframe given at a Jan. 16 neighborhood meeting called to debate the park’s future.

A dozen residents braved a winter storm to attend that gathering at the South Portland Community Center. All endorsed Towle’s view of the 62-year-old clubhouse, which steadily deteriorated from lack of maintenance until closed for good last year.

“I’d bulldoze it,” said Towle.

“We need to get this building out of here,” said City Manager Jim Gailey. “Then we can work with a blank slate to get some sort of amenity down there.”

What that amenity should be remains an open question. A second neighborhood meeting will be called in early March, once the clubhouse is gone, to decide what, if anything, should go up in its place.

Meanwhile, the City Council will get its chance to weigh in when it meets in a workshop session Monday.

“Pretty much everyone has agreed what should be done with the building,” said Towle, “but the courtesy of a final decision really needs to go to the council.”

At that meeting, Towle will report to the council on the asbestos, which Westbrook-based Abatement Professionals found in some tiles buried beneath the floor during its $700 site review.

“It appears over the years the folks who ran the building before the city took it over built each new floor on top of the old one, probably using whatever leftover materials were donated by some nearby contractor,” said Towle. “So, you’ve got layers of linoleum on top of linoleum on top of tile on top of tile, some of which have traces of asbestos, the same as you often find in any tile work from buildings of that era.”

“Interestingly,” said Towle, “some of these layers don’t always cover the entire floor.”

That patchwork maintenance, Towle said, speaks to the well-meaning if sometimes under-funded way the community cared for the building, even in its heyday.

In May 1950, John J. Wilkinson gave 9.47 acres at the end of New York Avenue to the Sunset Park Men’s Club, using land left over from one of the first major, mid-century subdivisions in South Portland. The club quickly built a 2,132-square-foot clubhouse there that summer. The park also included ball fields and a playground. Wilkinson’s only stipulation was that the property had to be used continually for public recreation. Otherwise ownership would revert back to him or his heirs.

But within a generation, the men’s club – having since changed its name to the Sunset Park Community Club – was in trouble. Records at the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds show six separate tax liens were placed on the property after 1988. Finally, in March 1994, the club worked with Wilkinson to sign the property over the city. The club disbanded soon after.

Reportedly, little money was put into the building even after the city took it on. In time, it began to rot from below, while spouting patches of moss out of the shingles on top. Perhaps due to what Towle charitably called a “lack of luster on the building” official use fell from virtually every weekend for the better part of three decades to just 16 function rentals in its final full year of use.

According to Towle, fixing what’s physically wrong with the building, updating its mechanical systems and bringing it up to code for fire, health and handicapped accessibility, would cost $140,000 – more than twice the $68,000 now set aside in a maintenance fund.

“I would say 100 percent that tearing it down would be the right thing to do,” said John M. Wilkinson, son of the park founder. “I just don’t want too much time to go by without a friendly agreement by everybody as to what we are going to put there instead.”

Apart from the clubhouse, the site – originally known as Sunset Park but named for the Wilkinson family after it became public property – also includes two Little League fields, a playground, a basketball court and an “unofficial” trail system, as well as a former Babe Ruth ballfield that has gone to seed.

In 2011 the council began a debate over how much money it should sink into the clubhouse, following a winter when it was shuttered due to failure of the heating system, Wilkinson has since stumped to save the building in memory of his father and grandfather, Frank Wilkinson, who also has a role in creating the park. Although Wilkinson stands to inherit the property if it ever falls out of public recreational use, his sole focus has been to preserve it, with the caveat that a community hall of some kind remains a focal point of the property.

“One of the big pieces that my dad had asked was that there be something,” said Wilkinson. “I won’t allow it to go with just open area, because that’s not what the intent was. That building was a piece of the whole idea and use of the park.”

Don Cook, president of the Sunset Community Club in the 1970s, has called on the city to replace the dilapidated structure “right where it is, as it is.” The same can-do attitude that built the old clubhouse could be drawn upon once more, he said at last week’s neighborhood meeting. However, Towle openly doubted whether the same kind of turnout could be expected today, “especially in this economy.”

More importantly, he said, the city cannot forego a professional constriction company in favor of volunteer labor.

“I’m not saying people would want to do poor or shoddy work, but there have to be standards,” said Towle.

Building to modern standards for a public building makes a new clubhouse “cost prohibitive,” said Towle. A clone of the current building could easily gobble up half of the city’s annual $1 million capital improvement budget, he said.

Instead, Towle stumped for an open-air pavilion – essentially a steel roof on posts – with an enclosed “community kitchen” on one end. That, he said, might be had for less than $125,000 and possibly for as little as $35,000, depending on how heavily the kitchen gets tricked out.

Towle also floated the idea of moving the building from its footprint, where it gets peppered with foul balls from the adjacent Little League field. A better spot, he said, would be the park’s basketball court, which is overgrown with “anklebusting” roots from the pine trees that shade the playground area. The court, Towle said, needs to be moved or rebuilt regardless.

But few at the neighborhood meeting seemed keen on that idea.

“The building is obviously a problem, I think everybody agrees on that,” said Pennsylvania Avenue resident Darlene Panzino. “But I have to say I’m not in favor of moving the building. What’s the problem with rebuilding in the same spot?”

“I don’t know what materials I can recommend building it out of to withstand the hail of baseballs,” said Towle.

Others, including Berwick Street resident Karina Babcock, who once used the clubhouse for Girl Scout activities, supported Towle’s idea to reclaim the old Babe Ruth field and leave it as an open area for “unstructured play.” Babcock also raised environmental issues connected to proposals to expansion of the park’s trail system and parking areas. Drainage is an issue, she said, particularly after storms.

Although the city cleared an overgrown area in front of the clubhouse last summer, creating 22 parking spots along New York Avenue, that’s not always sufficient during little league season. Still, Gailey said an additional expansion is unlikely. During a city council tour of the property in October, Gailey said neighborhood residents “nearly tarred and feathered” the parks department in 1998, when the idea was floated to use part of the park to build a parking lot.

The back of the Wilkinson Park clubhouse on New York Avenue is pockmarked with damage borne by baseballs from the adjacent Little League field.

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