Groups eye historic Bath waterfront building for numerous projects

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 5:37 p.m.

BATH, Maine — A prominent historic building on the Bath waterfront that has been for sale for several years is on the wish list of a group of nonprofit organizations that envision it as a bustling multi-use community center.

All they need is a large chunk of cash.

The building, known as the Bath Freight Shed, dates back approximately 110 years and is one of Maine’s last waterfront buildings of its kind, according to Wiebke Theodore of Arrowsic, one of the people behind the effort to revive it. Though its chipped and peeling clapboard exterior contrasts with nearby downtown buildings of stately brick and granite, Theodore, who is an architect, said that is part of its historic provenance.

“Having the Bath Freight Shed preserved and accessible on a daily basis will make downtown Bath more vibrant all year round,” she said. “In the summer, activity there is already going gangbusters.”

For the past year or so, a group called Maine’s First Ship has used the Freight Shed as the site of its efforts to build a replica of a ship called the Virginia, which was built by English colonists who settled in Phippsburg in 1607. The colony failed after a year but the Virginia has its place in history as the first documented major ocean-going vessel built in Maine. Maine’s First Ship operates under a lease agreement with Howie Kirkpatrick Jr. of Woolwich, who owns the Freight Shed.

The replica, which isn’t scheduled to be completed for a few years, is being built with the help of students and teachers from Morse High School, who are providing most of the labor for the project. The group also maintains a display of artifacts at the site, which over the summer attracted a steady trickle of history-loving visitors from around the world.

Merry Chapin, president of Maine’s First Ship, said she and others want to build on what is already a resounding success.

“We really want to see this become a permanent local resource,” said Chapin. “I guess we hope the money is going to just fall from the sky. We really want to preserve it.”

In addition to becoming a permanent headquarters for the Virginia project and associated programs, Chapin and Theodore want to start a winter farmers market there, create a bicycle rental operation and invite organizations such as the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust to conduct educational programming. Vendors from several farms, which normally sell their goods at the nearby Waterfront Park, will convene at the Freight Shed this Saturday for a trial run and to drum up support for the overall vision.

“We already have a lot of people dreaming about the possibilities for our community,” said Theodore, who maintains a blog about the Freight Shed project at www.bathfreightshed.blogspot.com. “We have a fair amount of momentum.”

But the project won’t come cheap. Kirkpatrick, whose family has owned vast portions of the Bath waterfront for several decades, said the property, which includes four-tenths of an acre of land, is listed at $895,000 and was valued at more than $1.2 million a few years ago by real estate appraisers. Since the property was put on the market in 2008, approximately 60 people have looked at it for uses ranging from an archery range to storefronts to a restaurant, said Kirkpatrick. Though he’ll sell it to the first willing buyer, Kirkpatrick says he supports the nonprofits’ vision for the property.

“Their hope is to find someone who will buy it or get some grant money,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’d like to see them end up with it. It’s been great seeing those young people there working on the Virginia.”

The Freight Shed, which originally was much larger than it is today, started as a transfer point for train freight to cross the Kennebec River before there was a bridge. Trains were taken across the river on steam-powered ferries before continuing to the north and east. Over the years, it was also a warehouse distribution center for local retailers, a metal scrap yard for Bath Iron Works, and in the 1950s was the original location of what is now Bisson Moving and Storage in Brunswick.

Theodore said she hopes to have the building ready for a full-time winter farmer’s market by the fall of 2012.

“Our goal is to have a weekly, year-round farmers market on the Bath waterfront,” she said. “There is much to be done before the building is ready.”

Saturday’s farmer’s market will run from 8:30 a.m. to noon and will include live music and refreshments.

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