ELLSWORTH, Maine — City councilors on Monday gave an unofficial thumbs up to a concept plan that would convert the Knowlton School property on State Street to a city park, a project that would require demolition of the vacant school building.
The proposal came from the Knowlton School Reconstruction Committee, which has been working for about a year to review possible uses of the Knowlton School property. Students from the Knowlton School will begin attending classes at the new Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School this fall.
Brent Bridges, senior vice president with Woodard & Curran, who has worked with the committee to develop the concept plan, presented the proposal to councilors Monday. Bridges said the plan has a variety of features, including open space, that the committee thought would be suitable for a community park, but that it did not represent a final design.
Among the features included in the concept plan are a spray pool, a turf field that could be flooded in winter for an ice-skating rink, relocated basketball courts, an amphitheater and a pavilion, along with picnic tables, a group picnic shelter and a comfort station with restrooms, as well as pathways with exercise stations. The existing playground would remain in place, as would the existing paved parking area.
“The idea was to [include] enough different features to make it as usable as possible for the entire community,” Bridges said.
City Manager Michelle Beal said the proposal for a community park was a nice fit for the city. Residents polled in a limited survey indicated this is something the city lacks, she said.
“When you can get 4½ acres in the urban core and have the property for free, it makes sense,” Beal said.
There are plenty of places in the city available for commercial and residential development, but few places in the urban-downtown area where a community park could be created, she said.
Beal added that the concept of a park was part of an economic development strategy that serves as a selling point as the city courts potential businesses.
“This has so much value, not in direct dollars, but [as] an economic development tool,” she said. “When we can talk to people and say, ‘Look at our hospital, at our housing opportunities, at our schools, our park.’ That’s what people are looking at. It is a quality-of-life tool.”
The school was named for Dr. Charles C. Knowlton, an Ellsworth resident, and Beal said the committee proposed also naming the park in his honor.
Councilors generally favored the concept.
Although Councilor Gary Fortier said he questioned some of the individual components in the concept plan, he supported the idea.
“It’s exciting to have a proposal for 4½ or 5 acres in the middle of the city to have a park,” he said. “We own the property. My No. 1 priority has been to get rid of the building before something happens to it.”
Councilor Pam Perkins questioned why the committee had chosen the park concept rather than other uses that might have put the property back on the tax rolls.
Mayor John Phillips noted that in order to get the property back on the tax rolls, the city would have to sell it. He said the committee felt that the property would benefit more people overall as a park.
Councilor Matthew Boucher questioned the process by which the committee had measured community opinion. He said the survey, which went out to about 100 people and garnered 87 responses, was not a large enough sample to provide an accurate cross section of the city’s population.
“The property is valued at $1.3 million,” he said. “I’d love to see a park there, but we’re taking it off the tax rolls. I’d want to have accurate numbers before we act on a project like this.”
In a straw poll, the councilors indicated by a 6-1 vote, with Boucher opposed, that they favored the concept.
Beal said the city had funding in the budget to do initial engineering work at the site, particularly identifying sources of asbestos in the building and determining how much asbestos abatement will need to be done.
This will be a long-term project, she said, and the city likely will seek state and federal grants for funding different components once a final plan has been developed.