EDITORIAL: New path for old fire station

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

By mid-April, Marblehead Finance Committee members are expected to have reviewed and analyzed all the 2023 warrant articles with financial implications and devised their recommendations for Town Meeting.

But there will be little mystery with Article 40, which requests an override of Proposition 2 1/2 to restore the Franklin Street fire station, which needs $2.3 million in exterior and restoration work, according to a conditions assessment funded through a Massachusetts Historic Preservation Grant and published in February.

The article’s main proponent, Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland, told the Current this week that he plans to recommend against favorable action on Article 40 when he appears before the Finance Committee. 

“My personal opinion is that it be withdrawn or indefinitely postponed,” Gilliland said. “I think we wait a year and see how donations and grants go.”

While the need for the restoration work is clear, we share the chief’s view that it is prudent for the station to take a back seat temporarily, as the big ticket item on this year’s Town Meeting warrant is a Proposition 2 1/2 general override, which officials are proposing to use to address a structural deficit in the town budget for Fiscal Year 2024 and beyond.  

A dozen firefighters staff 3 Franklin St., one of the oldest continuously operated fire stations in the commonwealth, which is situated to provide an extra layer of protection in the Old and Historic District. 

“Franklin Street has played a key role in keeping downtown safe for many, many years,” Gilliland told the Current in February, noting that fire grows twice in size every minute. In other words, any conflagration in the Old and Historic District could have catastrophic consequences for irreplaceable structures dating back to Colonial America.

The breadth of work that the town’s consultants say is needed at Franklin Street spans 400 pages. In early February, architects gave a skinny version of it in Abbot Hall. Photos projected in the Select Board Room showcased bricks that need to be repointed, rotting wood trim, cupping wood shingles, cracks and holes allowing the cold to seep in, beaten-up gutters and accessibility issues. Gilliland said squirrels and birds have taken up residency in the attic. 

Assuming Article 40 is abandoned, the town would approach the financing of the fire station’s renovation through the same private-public model used at Fort Sewall. In a future year, a Prop 2 1/2 debt exclusion override could finance whatever could not be raised from donors and grants.

We have confidence that the duo behind the restoration project, Town Planner Becky Cutting and Gilliland, will plot a sensible path forward, which may include everything from grants and phased renovations to partnerships and cost-saving measures.

While Fort Sewall and Franklin Street are historic properties, the fire station can be distinguished by the valuable purpose it continues to serve. While we are not enthusiastic about leaving the renovations dependent upon the generosity of donors, we believe residents will deliver. 

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