HAMPDEN, Maine — After decades of use for a variety of purposes ranging from education to sports and leisure, the old Hampden Academy may again see a wide range of uses that could also include church services and simulated hostage and bomb emergencies.
It’s only been about a month and a half since the Hampden Recreation Department began moving into its new home at the academy’s Skehan Center, but it already looks like that won’t be the only new member of the Hampden Academy reuse roster.
The Hampden town council gave its unanimous vocal approval Monday night for a proposal made by the Bangor police department to use parts of the former high school’s grounds for drills and exercises ranging from bombs planted in a room to guns in lockers to situations involving students or terrorists taking hostages.
“We haven’t even set up any particular dates or scenarios yet, but we do different scenarios all the time, and we’re right now in the initial planning stages,” said Bangor police officer Tim Shaw. “This presented a perfect opportunity. It provides more realistic training for us and we’re excited to be able to do this.”
The council also formally approved another possible reuse for the old academy building, voting 6-0 to grant a request by the Calvary Apostolic Church congregation, which lost their church to an arson fire back in May 2011, to use a wing of the building as a temporary home.
“ We’ve been at the Hampden Physical Therapy building and we’re checking out this option to see if it will work well for us,” said Pastor Tom Channell. “It’s a little further along than just exploratory. I think it’s quite viable.”
Channell said church officials must decide whether to extend their current lease or move to the old academy location, where they would likely lease the school library and four adjoining classrooms for church services and office space.
“Our lease is up at the end of December, but the building is for sale,” said Channell. “That option is just not as stable for us and that’s why we’re pursuing the old academy option more. That may be the better long-range option, but we still have a few hurdles to clear before we get to that point.”
Dean Bennett, Hampden’s economic development director, said the initial church plan is to lease one wing of the old school, which would include the library and four classrooms.
“They also plan to do substantial improvements inside at their expense,” Bennett said.
Channell said the church’s current congregation numbers about 75.
“We’re in the process of acquiring land to build a new church, but we haven’t been successful in purchasing land to build on,” Channell said. “So this is probably something we’re looking at doing for at least a year or so.”
As far as allowing police to stage drills and scenarios on the old academy property, which the town acquired in a land swap agreement with SAD 22 earlier this year, Hampden would allow police to use it for free.
“I was very happy when [Hampden police] Sgt. Chris Bailey brought the idea to me and gave it to the committee, as we all see it as a positive thing,” said Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard. “If anything like that, God forbid, happened here, Bangor’s SWAT and bomb squads would be the response units, so this is a great way to utilize that space for a very unique purpose that provides invaluable training for them.”
The idea came from Shaw.
“Basically, I contacted them,” said Shaw. “We’re always looking for new environments to train in and it’s hard to get into an environment like this since schools are heavily used.”
Shaw said the bomb squad is required to train twice a month and the special response team stages monthly training exercises.
Both Shaw and Lessard pointed out the increase in incidents of school violence over the last two decades illustrates the need to train for previously unthinkable scenarios.
“Obviously, having the best trained police department helps everybody,” said Bennett. “And if there’s a way we can help with that, we’re more than willing to do so.”