HOULTON, Maine — Despite some reservations, town councilors on Monday evening voted to allow a group of volunteers to raise money that one day could be used to build public restrooms in Riverfront Park.
The council, however, must give the project final approval and still could decide to nix construction if concerns about maintenance costs and other issues persist. If the Riverfront Committee successfully raises the estimated $80,000 needed to build the restrooms and the project is then rejected by the council, the money will be returned to donors.
Councilors were approached about the project last month by Bob Anderson, chairman of the Riverfront Committee. The committee created Riverfront Park in the downtown, which centers on Gateway Crossing, a pedestrian footbridge that stretches from the North Street Bridge across the Meduxnekeag River.
The committee worked for five years to raise the $1 million needed to build the 187-foot structure. The members then continued fundraising and secured grants and donations to create a lighted park furnished with picnic tables and other amenities, a groomed fitness trail, and storyboards depicting the history of the town and other facts about the community lining the bridge and walking path.
Anderson said the group believes that restrooms are needed in the area for shoppers and visitors. He estimated on Monday night that it would take at least two years to raise the money.
When Councilor John White questioned Anderson about portable toilets that had been in the park a few years ago, Anderson said they had not been a good option because they were difficult to stabilize and had tipped over.
Councilors have been cool to the idea of the restrooms because the town will have to foot the bill for maintenance. The facilities only would be open for half the year, as the bridge and park are closed in the winter. Concerns also have been expressed about damage by vandals.
White said he felt that if councilors told the committee to go ahead and begin raising the money, it would put the council in the position of being obligated to approve the project if fundraisers were successful.
Chairman Paul Cleary disagreed, saying that the town once was offered a $150,000 bequest to build an indoor swimming pool but had to turn it down because it could not afford to operate the facility.
Councilor Dan Peabody said that he had heard from several people in the community and that it was “not a popular project.”
He said residents he had spoken with feared that the maintenance costs would spiral out of control and leave the town in a situation similar to one it is in with the public restrooms at the Tourist Information Center. The town is spending $52,000 a year to finance those facilities just a short distance away. The town initially was told it would cost them approximately $6,000 to $8,000 a year at that site.
“People are nervous that it is going to turn out like that,” Peabody said.
Cleary said people constantly were asking if there were public bathrooms in Market Square, and he did not see the harm in letting them raise the money. He didn’t feel it obligated the town to agree to any future construction projects.
Town Manager Gene Conlogue agreed, saying that if the fundraising effort was successful but the council ultimately rejected the project, everyone would get their money back.
“It is a very real safety valve for donors,” he said.
White was the only councilor who voted against the proposal.