Police ask for use of old town hall, as SSA interest wanes
A proposal to allow the Oak Bluffs police department to move into the old town hall gained support last week at a public forum to discuss options for what to do with the abandon building.
Other suggestions included leasing the building to the Visiting Nurses Association (VNA), turning it into a museum or visitors' center, and moving the entire structure off-site and constructing a new building.
No decisions were made at the meeting, but the Oak Bluffs community development council said that it would collect the suggestions and make a presentation to the selectmen at a future meeting.
The old town hall was vacated five years ago for health-related reasons, following complaints by municipal employees that they were not feeling well. At the time, town officials dubbed it a "sick building."
Town officials said that recent tests on the building have not revealed any significant air quality problems. They said that they have removed old rugs, replaced windows, and cleaned up areas that could have been harboring mold and mildew.
While there were numerous suggestions at last week's meeting for what the town should do with the old town hall, the most widely supported plan called for the police department to move in from its cramped location adjacent to the building.
Erik Blake, Oak Bluffs police chief, said that he already uses the basement of the old town hall for storage and as an evidence room, but said he desperately needs more space for daily police operations.
"It is impossible to function in the amount of space we have right now," said Chief Blake. "People wait in the waiting room with suspects, victims, people who want to talk about parking tickets in a four-foot by 12-foot space. At shift changes in the summer time, there are anywhere from 15 to 17 people in a 10- by 14-foot space, trying to do reports, eat dinner, deal with phone calls. There is not enough space to function as a police department."
Chief Blake said that earlier this year he had hoped to begin planning for a new police station near the new town hall and the new library on School Street. The plan was part of a broader town campus design. However, at the annual town meeting in April, voters rejected a request for $250,000 to develop a design for a new town hall building at the site or a renovation plan for the existing facility. Chief Blake said that he still supports the idea of a town campus, but said that until then, his department needs more space.
"Even if it is a stopgap measure until a town hall campus is realized or we build something with the fire department, or any number of ideas happen, we need something now," said Chief Blake. "It's not a matter of convenience it's a matter of need. It's pretty impossible to function professionally right now."
Audience members rallied behind the request.
"It seems to me, that morally, if the police feel they can and need to occupy that space, that they really should have the first call on this" said David Wilson, chairman of the Oak Bluffs historic district commission. "I know that there are other plans, which I support, but if that is an interim, all other projects can wait until we take care of a very pressing need for our police department."
David Morris, Oak Bluffs businessman, said, "Tomorrow morning I would give Chief Blake the building until something can be done permanently. It's not being used, and he needs the space."
Among the other proposals for the old town hall, Bob Tonti, Foundation for Island Health executive director, said that the Vineyard Nursing Association (VNA) is looking for a new home. He said the VNA will have to move out of its space at the hospital as part of the hospital's plans to build a new facility.
He said that the VNA needs about 2,500 square feet of space that they can use for about three years, when the new hospital is expected to be completed. Mr. Tonti suggested that the police and the VNA could share the 5,000-square foot town hall.
Another suggestion called for the creation of an Island museum.
Terry McCarthy, Oak Bluffs businessman, said a museum would provide a steady source of revenue for the town.
"I think the town has to look at utilizing this building to give some sort of revenue relief to families in the towns, to find an alternative to the tax base," he said. "I see that building as a golden opportunity to bring in revenue."
Instead of a museum, other audience members supported creating a smaller visitors' center that could share the space with other uses.
Many of the people that spoke at the meeting said they opposed any commercial activity that would draw business away from Circuit Avenue.
While much of the discussion focused on the short-term uses for the building, several long-term ideas were proposed as well.
Peter Martell, businessman, and Oak Bluffs economic development committee member, said that the town could move the current building from its existing site and use the prime downtown real estate for a number of ventures. He said that when he last checked it would have cost about $80,000 to move the building, but he said the he expects that number has risen.
Community development council members said that they would take all the suggestions to create a comprehensive analysis for the future use of the old town hall. They also encouraged people to continue to provide input and suggestions.