Monday, October 3, 2011

McClellan Building: Fantasy Land Castle, Times Record II, or both?

As you probably know, our Town Parents (‘Fathers’ would be politically incorrect, and we can’t bring ourselves to say Town ‘Mothers’) are in discussions with Bowdoin College about acquiring the relatively new McClellan building at the corner of Union St. and Station Ave. in exchange for The Longfellow School Building and property.  Expectations are that the Bowdoin building would become the new home of our municipal offices.

Visions of sugar plum fairies and TinkerBell ignite the imagination at the promise of our very own Fantasy Land Castle working its magic on all who would visit here.  Combined with the local train station, images of a municipal Disneyland, fashioned after the original, begin to appear.  We can even see a bottomless vernal pool where fairies tend their shrimp, while Small World like boats carry unbelieving children and adults alike.  Do you think lobsters could be part of the mix?  And a submarine ride?

The possibility of acquiring the McClellan building, while attractive on its face, stirs up unhappy memories of what might politely be called Brunswick’s undistinguished facility stewardship and planning record.  While there are too many examples to list, let’s recall just a few.

  • A classic and much loved municipal building, smack in the middle of downtown on Maine Street, was demolished to make room for the now departed Grand City department store, and replaced with the civic embarrassment at 28 Federal Street.  Town officials have been trying to escape this facility for years, although considerable sums have been invested in consultants to suggest how the sow’s ear could be turned into a silk purse.
  • False starts on public safety facilities have been frequent, and lately, plans for multiple new facilities are once again on the table.  Citizen opposition to prior plans, as shown in a referendum, following which the council said ‘we got the message,’ have strangely been forgotten.
  • School buildings have not been well maintained, and are tossed aside as so much dead weight when pretty new structures paid for with ‘free money’ from the state are suggested.
  • The former Times Record building on Industry Road was purchased by the town in a perfect example of governmental incompetence in managing and executing capital facility programs.  And now it sits largely abandoned, waiting only, we suppose, for a multi-million dollar ‘remediation proposal.’  Which may well consist of just bulldozing it down, burying not only the acquired building, but also the half million or more in improvements made on behalf of a local community college.

It’s no secret that we supported the purchase of the TR building, based on the size and price, and having been in the building more than once.  Tacit in that support, in which we were not alone, was an expectation that paid town professionals would conduct due diligence before committing us to a purchase contract.

We were silly enough to consider such foresight de rigueur, as we would for any purchase of an existing home or other structure.  You hire a building inspector; how hard is that?  How much could that cost?  You don’t finalize plans to buy the building until you know and understand what they find.

Silly is right.  The town bought the building for what seemed a great price, only to find after closing that it needed renovations of more than three times the purchase price!  Our leaders were shocked, shocked we say. 

We’ll let you decide whether the shock was of the ‘crocodile’ variety, given the lust for new and elaborate Taj Mahals to foster community pride, and making sure neighboring backwaters don’t continue to embarrass us.  Be careful though; buying into the crocodile theory could lead to speculation about deeper mysteries associated with taking the old building off the owner’s hands.

Looking into things after the fact, it appears we decided that due diligence is for little people, and instead, we hired – you guessed it – consultants to examine the building.  From the report we saw, that consultant concluded that while the building had ‘some’ issues, overall it was in surprisingly good shape.

Somehow, in the months between that report and completing the purchase, the building suffered severe decline.  At least if you were to judge by the renovation estimates.  Just about every aspect of the place was deemed in dire straits and in need of replacement, but by then the town had become the ‘proud owners’ of the facility. 

And so those best laid plans for improving municipal facilities suddenly became DOA, stunning local officials and stimulating much wringing of hands.  Perplexed looks were common-place as the consequences of our undeserved misfortune sank in.

Which leads us to consider the plans of the moment.  The plans for the McClellan building, that is.  We want to believe that a lesson has been learned, and that true due diligence will precede finalization of any deal.

We want to believe that, but we can imagine a story line for doing exactly the opposite.  It goes like this:

“Bowdoin has made a good faith offer, and it would be ungracious and thoughtless of us to suggest there might possibly be any problems with the building.  We can’t risk undoing the fragile balance holding the proposal together.  And besides, the building is nearly brand new; what could possibly be wrong with it?”

As to that last point, we say poppycock!  We built our house 14 years ago, and within the first ten years, we had two significant episodes of structural damage from water incursion, both caused by minor anomalies in the installation of flashing.  The damage only became apparent when our painter began to do some exterior maintenance.  In other words, even ‘brand new’ buildings can have significant problems hiding from normal view.

The only way to avoid this kind of surprise is to make sure we bring on board an experienced municipal facility consultant to guide us in closing the deal with Bowdoin College.

Continuing with the possibility of a classic governmental SNAFU, we also are confident that upon completing the swap, if they should indeed do so, it won’t be long before we begin to hear the stories about how officials “didn’t realize how much work would have to be done to make the building suitable for town purposes.” 

We don’t imagine, for example, that the building has council chambers of appropriate character ready to be occupied.  Nor space set up for serving the public like the codes, tax collection, assessing, and town clerk offices do.  And how much do you think changing the exterior to look like a castle is going to cost, complete with night sky special effects?

There’s got to be a number of other details that simply cry out for ‘doing it right and doing it now.’  You know, “we basically got the building for nothing, so even with the spending we need to do, the town is still saving a fortune.”

Coming up with the right customization plan is going to take an experienced consultant familiar with facility acquisition and the complex needs of municipal staff.  Fortunately, a local firm, Eaton Peabody, has the expertise and personnel to handle this challenging assignment. 

In case you weren’t aware, Don Gerrish, our former Town Manager, is now on Eaton Peabody’s staff.  He just might be the right fit for the job, and the effort shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred large.

Why?  Because he was the man in charge for the acquisition of the old Times Record building, the one that may soon be tossed on the ash heap of Brunswick town facilities.

So we shouldn’t have to worry about making the same mistakes that look like they will lead to sending millions down the rat hole.  Don surely learned from the surprises encountered on that undertaking.

We’re confident that if you call Eaton Peabody to ask, they’ll probably say “and you can trust us on this, because we’re not like all the others.”  If that’s not enough to make you happy, then we don’t know what could. 

Except having your own star to wish upon.

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