The results of a survey about George J. Mitchell Field and its administration building show no clear preference for demolition or renovation of the structure.
The town’s Mitchell Field Committee plans to gather more information about options for the building before voters determine its future, perhaps in a fall referendum.
The survey responses show “(1) there is an almost equal call to save it or demolish it, (2) people need more info to make a decision about the Admin Building, and (3) there is interest in a community building for a variety of uses,” according to a footnote on the results. “Whether or not those are appropriate for the Admin Building is an open question.”
The committee conducted the survey from Aug. 15 to Oct. 15, 2022, distributing paper forms with tax bills. Respondents could also fill out the survey online. The committee received 756 responses.
The committee presented the results to the Harpswell Select Board on Jan. 12. Committee Chair Spike Haible said the “takeaway” is the community’s strong interest in the property — many residents frequent it and have many opinions about its future.
“I think the broad consensus is that people like Mitchell Field the way it is, they like how they can use it, but they also have a lot of suggestions for how we can improve Mitchell Field, and that’s where you get into the details,” Haible said.
Committee Secretary Don Miskill addressed the board about the administration building. The brick building sits across from the beach, on the corner where the park road veers to the north, toward the Running Tide shellfish hatchery.
The survey asked two questions about the building.
The first question explained that the building is vacant and needs repairs. A donor has offered to pay for the renovation of the building, but not its attached garage. The town would need to pay for a septic system and well, among other expenses.
The question asked respondents to indicate their level of support for each of four options: renovate the building for town and community use; make short-term repairs and keep the building for future use; demolish the building and use the site for open space, parking, and permanent restrooms; or demolish the building and construct a smaller building for waterfront and community use.
Miskill said that 345 respondents wanted to either renovate or retain the building, while 359 wanted to demolish it and either keep the space open or build a smaller structure.
The second question was open-ended: “Do you have additional comments about the disposition of the Administration Building?”
The survey garnered 233 written responses to the question. The committee classified the responses into categories, including 68 requests for more information; 60 comments in favor of demolition; 44 in favor of permanent restrooms; 28 in favor of renovation; 13 in favor of a library; 10 in favor of a cafe, restaurant, or rental space; and seven in favor of a community center, with a smattering of other suggestions.
Many commenters were blunt in their assessment of the building’s appearance: “It is so ugly that I don’t like going to the park because it is there,” said one. “It’s ugly! Get rid of it, anything would be better,” said another. A third was more concise: “ugly building demolish.”
Because of the inconclusive results, the committee has recommended a series of steps to gather more information before the issue heads to a vote.
“The Town should take the lead, do the research, develop initial costs, conduct a complete hazardous material assessment of the building, conduct building condition assessments in conjunction with the donor’s consultant, develop long-term maintenance & upkeep costs, have the donor present a complete project plan with final designs, then conduct public workshops, and then move to a vote,” Haible said in a memorandum.
The committee’s plan also calls for the town to obtain estimates for a septic system and well, and to conduct a “feasibility study to determine potential uses for the building.”
The committee acknowledges that its recommendations will delay a final decision until the fall or later, but “this issue is too important to rush through,” Haible said in the memo.
During the Jan. 12 meeting, Select Board member Dave Chipman urged the board and committee to push for a vote in June. “I would rather speed the timeline up a little bit,” Chipman said.
But Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said she does not think the vote could occur in June, because the town would have to complete the assessments and studies by April to leave enough time for public hearings and notices.
“I just don’t know if that’s a realistic timetable,” Eiane said.
“My concern is, we’re losing an entire construction season,” Chipman said.
Select Board member Jane Covey said the board should send a recommendation to voters as soon as possible, “but it needs to be solid.”
Covey said that before the town decides whether to renovate, it needs to determine whether it could find tenants for the building.
“We can build something that we want, but if there’s nobody occupying that space and providing services, we have a building that’s been renovated, that’s beautiful, that is empty and unused,” Covey said.
Haible said that a zoning amendment, currently in development, would shift the boundaries of the Mitchell Field Marine Business District and prohibit businesses from the administration building. Nonprofits and town departments could occupy the space, but a cafe, for example, could not.
Other highlights from the survey results include strong interest in the creation of nature trails, a playground, and an ice skating rink. The results are available at the Mitchell Field link on the town website, harpswell.maine.gov.
Mitchell Field encompasses 120 acres and a half-mile of waterfront on Middle Bay. A former U.S. Navy fuel depot, the facility served the Brunswick Naval Air Station from 1954 until the late 1980s. The federal government transferred the land to the town in 2001.