As their town grows, Chilmark municipal employees are playing a game of musical chairs at the old Menemsha School.
In November of 2001, when the town library staff needed a place to work while their building underwent $2.4 million in renovations and expansion, the Menemsha School became their temporary home.
No sooner was the library done last June than town hall employees moved in, as their own building went through a $1.5 million upgrade. They expect to be in the school until mid March.
And next in line to use the school space will be the Chilmark police department. The force was given notice to move out of the U.S. Coast Guard Station months ago. They've got their sights on the Menemsha School, but town leaders haven't yet decided how temporary or permanent this next move might be.
One point of agreement: The space available in the historic former school has been a godsend for Chilmark.
Selectman Warren Doty said in an interview this week: "This is very organic." The sequence of municipal building improvements in town began with the building of the new $3.6 million Chilmark School back in 1999, and the Menemsha School building has played a critical role ever since.
While other towns on the Island have fractured town facilities, Chilmark hasn't sprawled far from its center. The post office, town hall, library, elementary school and fire station are all within a healthy stone's throw. Some have called the Beetlebung Corner a town campus. No other Island town can today claim such a campus.
"Our big worries are about a town center," Mr. Doty said. "All you have to do is drive around Chilmark. The town has worked hard to protect its character. North Road is one of the prettiest rural roads in Massachusetts. The year-round citizens of the town have done much to preserve the character of the town."
The prospect of having the Chilmark police department back in the center of town is good news for everyone. Prior to being located at the Coast Guard station, the police department used the second floor of town hall. The department had more space at Menemsha, but the location posed access problems. Every cruiser had to negotiate what sometimes was a congested drive.
Police chief Timothy Rich looks forward to being back in the center of the town for a lot of reasons. His complaint is with the hassle of another move.
"We are pleased the Coast Guard is upgrading the station to a full station. We want them to have a strong presence in Menemsha," Mr. Doty said. "Our next big problem is to find a permanent location for the police and fire and ambulance."
Mr. Doty envisions a combined police, fire and ambulance center somewhere in the center of town.
"I think our next big expense will be a new fire station. We have to do it in a financially prudent way. Luckily the town has only a small amount of debt," Mr. Doty said. The town owes $1.7 million on a number of projects, including $1.5 million for the town hall expansion. A loan of $2.42 million for the school is being paid not by the town but through the Up-Island regional district. The town library is paid for. Mr. Doty said: "If we were to borrow, it would be at an extraordinarily low rate, around three and a half per cent."
The Chilmark fire department, led by chief David Norton, has been discussing its space needs for two years. The present fire station can't meet the storage needs either for fire trucks or the Tri-Town ambulance. There are asbestos issues and safety concerns in the old building as well. Downtown sites are being looked at.
Selectman Alex Preston believes the police department should make the Menemsha School building its permanent home. "The consensus in the town is that we want to do a historic renovation of the front of the old school. It would be ideal if we could find an ongoing, active use of the building," Mr. Preston said. At a recent selectmen's meeting, Mr. Preston said he had heard that police and fire personnel in other communities don't always get along.
Selectman Frank Fenner said he hasn't yet made up his mind on the question of finding space for the police, fire department and ambulance service. "I am trying to remain open," he told the Gazette this week.
Chief Rich is also flexible on this point, though for the moment he has his sights on the immediate transition facing his department. "The Menemsha School could make a perfectly suitable police facility," he said. "I happen to get along with the fire chief. [But] down the road there may be two different people who might not get along."
Chief Rich said he looks forward to being in the center of town again: "Beetlebung Corner is the center spoke of a wagon wheel. It is accessible to the public. From the station you'll be able to get to all the roads in town." The chief said he could see staying at the Menemsha School indefinitely or being part of a public safety building complex.
The changes to the Menemsha School to meet the needs of the police will be more significant than changes made to accommodate either library or town hall employees. Steps will be taken to include locker rooms and an overnight bedroom for employees who don't live in town but are on call.
"The biggest bonus at the Coast Guard station was that the building was an excellent police facility. The third deck offered male and female locker rooms and sleeping facilities. Most of the police officers on the department don't live in town. It gave us flexibility to house officers on a short-time basis while they were filling shifts," the chief said. "Some of the police officers working last summer had housing issues, living on the Cape and commuting to work and staying at the police station."
Chief Rich emphasized that this discussion about his department's future quarters isn't about any desire for a bigger office. "I could retire by the time this all plays out," he observed. Chief Rich, who is 48, said he has no plans to retire in the next two years, but added: "What I am trying to do is bring the 28 years I have worked for the town and use that experience to look at the best interests of the town."
At the spring annual town meeting, voters will be asked to approve spending money on getting the Menemsha School ready for the police move. The number, not yet known, will exceed $50,000.
Deborah Durland, architect for the Chilmark Library, did a needs assessment on what could be done to the schoolhouse to make it a permanent or temporary police station.
On Monday, Bob Balaschi, project manager for A. P. Whitaker and Sons Inc. of West Bridgewater, toured the old school to study what might be done to meet police needs without spending lots of money. He represents the general contracting firm now working on the town hall. There is talk of having his firm do what is needed at the school.
"Everything is more expensive than I want," said Mr. Doty after meeting with Mr. Balaschi. "Fifty thousand dollars is probably too little."
The cost of preparing the school depends heavily on the town's long-term plans. If the police move is temporary, the town doesn't want to spend too much. If the move is permanent, the price could be a lot higher.
"Let us see how this building comes to them," said Mr. Fenner. "I would like to see it remodeled in the least possible cost, until we know whether it is a permanent or temporary structure."
Town executive secretary Tim Carroll said that based on conversations with Mr. Balaschi, the town may be looking at the move costing under $100,000. Mr. Carroll said: "The selectmen haven't decided yet what to do."
Chief Rich said: "We are going through a horrific colliding of time lines, which has put a lot of pressure on the selectmen and myself and the Coast Guard."
The renovation of the town hall can't be done quickly enough. The Coast Guard wants the police out of the building by May. Mr. Carroll said town leaders hope to persuade the Coast Guard to extend that date.
Another concern in the community is the historic value of the Menemsha School. Jane Slater, chairman of the town historical commission, said: "I feel the school should be preserved. I would like the police in the center of town, but I don't want them in that building. I don't want them going into that tiny little school. I would rather have the opportunity to save the school while we can. We want to preserve the outside as it looked in 1875. We want to restore it to a typical schoolroom with wainscoted walls and slate blackboards."
Whether it's as a historic building, police station or something else, Chilmark leaders generally agree that the old school has served its town well and will likely continue to do so. Said Chief Rich: "There may be other municipal needs for the Menemsha School."