For a decade, Biddeford leaders have tried repeatedly to persuade residents to invest millions of dollars into the 124-year-old City Hall, a stately brick building that sits at the center of the historic downtown.

Each time, voters said no. Now, city officials say, the bill is coming due.

With the appearance of the clock tower and dome continuing to deteriorate and other upgrades needed in City Hall and the adjacent City Theater, city councilors this year will again look for ways to pay for the project. It’s unclear how much it would take to address all of the issues, but the city staff estimates it could cost at least $1.8 million to fix the clock tower alone.

Voters have rejected proposals three times in the last 11 years to fund work on Biddeford’s City Hall. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“City halls in general really define in a lot of ways what a city stands for. When you see a city hall fall into disrepair, it says a lot,” Mayor Alan Casavant said. “In Biddeford that’s especially true because we’re seeing rejuvenation downtown. The city should be investing in its own infrastructure also.”

When the City Council this month finalized and adopted the 2018 work plan for the city, councilors identified repairs to the City Hall tower as a priority that will be addressed in the second quarter. Possible sources of money for the project include the capital improvement plan budget, a bond and grants that may be available for work at City Theater.

The push to invest in City Hall comes as the city is experiencing a surge of investment in the downtown, where former textile mills have been converted into housing and businesses ranging from artists’ studios and restaurants to light manufacturing. Last year, the city improved sidewalks and crosswalks and added more flowers downtown.

City leaders have discussed the future of City Hall for well over a decade, but haven’t been able to sell residents on the need to borrow money to fix the clock tower and do other repairs and upgrades in the building. Voters rejected referendums to fund the work in 2007, 2012 and 2015.

The budget for capital improvements was often the first to be cut in years when councilors struggled to keep the municipal budget in check.

“Over the past 20 or 30 years, the city has really been a poor protector of its infrastructure,” Casavant said. “In order to save the tax rate, we repeatedly cut the capital improvement budget. Things were pushed to next year, then next year never comes.”

Council President John McCurry said the message voters seemed to send when voting against three renovation bonds was that they wanted the city to pay for upkeep with the city budget, not extra borrowing. That has been difficult in years past, but the current council is now focused on investing in city infrastructure, he said.

“We are our own worst enemy by not keeping up with it, when you look at City Hall, ” McCurry said. “We have to start being good stewards of the city assets.”

FIRST-CLASS PEDIGREE

Phil Radding, director of facilities for the city, has spent years monitoring the condition of City Hall and working with architects on stabilization work. He can easily list the work that needs to be done to restore the clock tower: regilding the copper dome, wood paneling and windows on the tower, restoring stained glass windows, redoing the roof under the bell, fixing the clock itself. Then there are the sprinklers and replacement windows needed throughout the building, plus bathrooms and other issues at City Theater, which is attached to City Hall.

“Biddeford is growing and looking much prettier. We have all these mill buildings going into restoration and downtown is becoming more lively,” Radding said. “This is really our signature and we want it to look its best.”

Biddeford City Hall, listed on the National Historic Register, was designed by noted Portland architect John Calvin Stevens. The granite and brick City Hall was built in 1894 to replace one destroyed by fire. In 2014, Maine Preservation added the building’s clock tower to its annual list of the state’s most endangered properties. The clock stopped working four years ago and decorative railings were removed from the tower when pieces started falling to the street below.

Voters in 2007 rejected a referendum to fix the clock tower, which had some cosmetic repairs done in the 1980s. After that vote, the city spent $250,000 for short-term stabilization work because rotting debris was falling from the tower and water was leaking into the building. The issue made its way back onto the ballot in 2012, when voters rejected a $3 million bond for City Hall repairs. They again said no to fixing the building when they rejected a $2.27 million bond in 2015.

But that 2015 vote was close, with 1,828 residents voting in favor of the repairs and 1,964 residents rejecting the bond. In the same election, voters approved a $5.99 million bond for road work and paving projects and $3.9 million for Combined Sewer Overflow abatement.

Voters also approved a major infrastructure investment in 2009 when they gave the go-ahead for a $34 million renovation of Biddeford High School, which had fallen into disrepair after years of deferred maintenance.

Longtime City Councilor Marc Lessard said voters have seemed more willing to fund road and school projects because they drive on the roads and their children use school facilities.

“When it comes to (other) infrastructure, it’s not high on the list for folks,” he said. “The only benefit they have out of City Hall is going to pay their taxes.”

Lessard said he believes addressing the needs at City Hall should be viewed as part of investing in the downtown. He would like to see the city adopt a facade ordinance similar to ones used in towns like Freeport and Ogunquit to create a cohesive look for the downtown.

“We can’t ask landowners and property owners to abide by a facade program and have your facade of the city – which is City Hall – in the condition that it is,” he said. “It can’t be a situation of do as I say, not as I do.”