By Richard Gaines
---- — A unanimous vote by Gloucester’s School Committee last week to confirm the largely empty Fuller School building to be a “surplus” property for the school district added a small step to a chain of events that according to Mayor Carolyn Kirk and many city councilors will allow the redevelopment of the property.
Although the timing and redevelopment of the Fuller building, originally constructed by the Archdiocese of Boston as a Catholic high school, and used as a sixth elementary school until 2008, remains unclear, Kirk says that the city needs a unified public safety building for the police and fire departments and that the grounds of the Fuller property is where the facility should be built.
Kirk said seed funding for the design of the new public safety complex can be expected from National Grid which is projected to pay the city about $450,000 a year for electricity generated by the giant turbines which have gone operational in Blackburn Industrial Park.
She also said the revenues should help the city leverage borrowing for the new public safety facility.
The Fire Department is based in a 1920s building that has been obsolete for decades and the Police Department in a building from the 1970s which it shares with the District Court and offices, and by modern main street thinking does not contribute to the ambiance or economic vitality of the retail sector.
The future of Fuller is vague, compared to the vision of a modern public safety facility being place somewhere on the grounds of the old school. The School Committee’s vote last week essentially confirmed a memorandum of understanding signed between the School Committee and the mayor’s office last month.
Both of the city’s new public safety chiefs, Leonard Campenallo of Police Department and Eric Smith of the Fire Department, favor Fuller’s use as a site for a public safety complex, in part because of the obsolete nature of their present facilities and also due to the location of the Fuller property — tucked along the Route 128 extension and thus offering access to the north up Washington Street, to the West on Route 128, and to the East and South down the extension.
The decision to “surplus” Fuller comes with complicated conditions, the most important of which is in a memorandum of understanding with the city that would reserve the Fuller School for use as backup for the West Parish School, should a feasibility study of replacing West Parish conclude that a new school could not be built elsewhere on the property, requiring the school to be closed for replacement or modernization.
That feasibility study report is expected by spring, according to councilors, clarifying another of the uncertainties about the future - if there is one -- for the Fuller structure.
The City Council has approved a non-binding referendum for the November ballot that asks whether the public would like to see it put back to use as a school on a permanent basis, used as a municipal building or leased or sold. But with the School Committee’s decision to “surplus” the Fuller, some councilors said it was likely the referendum question would be refined to offer only two options — use as a municipal building or sale/lease to put it back into productive use.
Kirk said she believes the future of the Fuller will be decided by the community as it works through the options for downtown redevelopment possibly including ending City Hall’s run as the center of the government. Even since City Hall was forced closed for a year in 2004 — beginning the day the Red Sox won the World Series — opinion has been split about continuing to base the government in the breathtakingly beautiful but functionally obsolete 1871 National Historic Register structure.
Councilor Greg Verga, among others, advocates for a new City Hall and municipal building, allowing the offices now in rental space on Pond Road, at a cost of $100,000 a year, to be consolidated in one place, and begging the question, what is City Hall’s next use or uses?
Councilor Paul McGeary said he believes it is important to keep “City Hall and offices downtown” but acknowledged that doing so will require a significant investment.
School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said the Fuller School is “not in great shape” and that those who assume the building is easily adaptable are relying on “myth and nostalgia” from their childhood Fuller days.
Kirk said a mixed use for Fuller should also be considered.
The Cape Ann YMCA has expressed a strong desire to move from Middle Street to the Fuller perhaps to share space with the “Pond people” — as the city workers in community development, public health and engineering working in rental space above the CATA offices off Pond Road are called.
And, of course, there are many other complications that must be worked out, including what to do with the school administrative offices and the preschool.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.