Tuesday, January 21, 2014

McClellan: Making new memories for Cape Brunswick?

The other day, in this post, we coined the term “TRS” as shorthand for Times Record Syndrome.  Along the same axis, we just realized that the terms ‘due diligence’ and ‘due negligence’ have a lot in common, especially as they relate to municipal acquisition of existing properties.  Properties, as Sally Sellitt might describe them in classic real estate ad hyperbole, ‘just waiting for your creative and loving touches to bring out their inner strengths and restore them to their full glory.’

Speaking of TRS, do you know of a living person anywhere else who can say they watched their town tear down TWO generations of Town Hall?  Or, if you’re of a mind to give some credit for the SNAFU involving the old Times Record building on Industry Road, for which we created the diagnosis of Times Record Syndrome (TRS), we could give some credit for that false start, and change the premise of the question to tearing down 2.5 generations of Town Hall. 

That was $2 million or so down the crapper, and it deserves some sort of recognition in our rich and varied history.  And it bridges the current ‘town administration’ with the prior one.

Here’s the old Maine Street Town Building, which we understand was torn down in the 60s.  That’s before we arrived on the scene, but we were of adult age then, fresh out of college with our engineering degree.

File:Old Town Building, Brunswick, ME.jpg

We had a hard time finding a pastable photo of the about to be demolished building on Federal Street, but with a little luck, this link will remind you of that exquisite tribute to civic pride and public building architecture.  We will miss it so.

Now our lovely and perfect town is about to embark on the McClellan phase of its distinguished capital asset history.  We’ve written on the subject several times in the past.  The more we learn, the more we’re convinced there must be a lot of high-fiving in Bowdoin College executive offices over the ‘deal’ they negotiated with the town. It’s looking more and more like they got rid of a lame white elephant that was completely out of character with their normal building aesthetic.

We don’t know whether the process that unfolded when planning to adapt the building for town use, which begun in the $100,000 range, led to Mr. Manager’s ‘resignation.’  It easily could have provided sufficient impetus for any councilors who were so inclined to begin with. 

In such situations, we’re always reminded that we should have had professional staff handle such complex development efforts.  Oh wait; we do have professional staff.  Some times it’s hard to tell when it comes to our physical assets, if not a number of other things.

To refresh you as to the current status of things, we only need look at this article from last year.  It reports, more than a month ago, that estimates for the renovations have increased to $992,000, but who knows what unknowns could have popped up between then and now.  On a drive by the other day, it was pretty clear that work was well underway on the first floor at least, with two full size dumpsters on site.

This aged article points out that the $992,000 figure was already obsolete.  Why?  Because of a ‘bidding form mistake, the cost of a $90,000 power generator wasn’t in the budget.’  That’s the adult equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework.’  Ka-ching, ka-ching. 

Make the new, revised, 2014 total $1,082,000.  By the way, $90,000 could buy 15 or so whole house standby generators, in case you wondered.  Later in the same article we read this:

In addition, the replacement and repair of rotting wood on the building's sides also won't be addressed until one of the next two fiscal years, Brown said, although he did not provide a cost estimate.

As most of us who own property know all too well, putting off replacement and repair of ‘rotting wood’ for a year or two always reduces the overall scope of the job and lowers the cost.  At least we’ve come to believe that’s what it says in the “Manual of Deferred Municipal Building Maintenance.”  We’re guessing $50,000 as the right range.

Ka-ching, ka-ching again, faithful readers.

Now the really good news on McClellan.  It’s come to our attention that the building has some other problems that are not public knowledge, and that these may well be caused by ‘underlying’ factors that could lead to serious issues and expenses in coming years.  These might be of the sort that are not easily deferred, and whose scope and costs are not easily predicted.

Here are the inputs we’ve received, from more than one source:

A shear problem of the sewer line into the building caused by building and or surrounding soil shifting. That line was apparently not fitted with the required flex connection boot. It is an indication of dynamics that were not accounted for in the past.

Numerous problems, none seriously substantiated, relating to sinking, settling, and drainage.  Reports that the bathrooms on the first level have a "sunken" floor.  Serious problems with drainage that will only get worse with time.

Drainage problems coupled with high groundwater and sloppy saturated soils will combine over time to cause incremental foundation problems that will likely go undetected until "discovered".  Stabilization is not now in the budget and should be evaluated by a qualified geotechnical - structural - foundation consultant. Truly a hidden cost; likely long term problem.

While we have no documentation to submit on these issues, given the history and nature of the site, they don’t come as any real surprise.  That aside, shouldn’t due diligence require that inquiries into past problems be made, and that the underlying causes and possible consequences be identified?  Who knows what we’re getting into, and what we’ve allowed Bowdoin to get out of?  On the other hand, it’s too late.  The deal is done.  TRS.

In case you’ve forgotten, one of the justifications for replacing existing schools in town is ‘sinking floors.’  So such problems are not unknown in the area.  Even the new Police HQ building underwent some setbacks and additional expense because of groundwater issues.

We’re reminded of a Sunday School song from decades ago about ‘houses built on sinking sands.’  We’re also reminded that the Brunswick West site where NNEPRA wants to build the Amtrak MLF suffers from similar ‘soil dynamics’ challenges, and that these are adding substantially to the projected cost and complexity of that project.

Uncertainty, unknowns, lack of due diligence, risk?  It’s beginning to look like TRS may be contagious.  Be sure to wear appropriate protective gear the next time you dig a hole.

Or, for those who suggest ‘don’t worry, be happy,’ perhaps they can start building the legend of Cape Brunswick’s own modern-day tourism icon. 

Don’t be surprised If you start hearing that all meetings will be held on one side of the building.


  1. Like Guam, if they all go to one side the building may tip over.

  2. I'll pull a Gary Brown and double your $50,000 estimate for exterior repairs to $100,000. And that's assuming they don't find MUCH bigger problems once they start opening things up....