J. Richard Martin Community Center in Biddeford. Credit: Google Maps

The failure of a boiler at the J. Richard Martin Community Center in Biddeford has turned into a far larger discussion on the fate of the century old building and how best to address the faltering structure.

The 43,000-square-foot community center, built in 1888, houses numerous tenants, including Meals on Wheels Kitchen, Adult Education classes, the Ross Senior Center and various other groups.

In August, one of the building’s two boilers failed, cutting off heating on the second floor and attic area. The boiler failure adds to an already lengthy list of needed maintenance issues of the building, which town officials believe could cost well over $5 million — the amount it cost to renovate the old Emery School on Birch Street that is now an apartment complex.

During a recent City Council meeting, councilors deliberated over the best course of action for the community center.

Councilors were given multiple options to consider, including abandoning the building in favor of a new facility while installing a “throw away” temporary boiler as the city plans for a new community center, replacing the existing boiler to restore heating to the second floor and attic, as well as other options such as retaining the building but replacing and upgrading heating and piping.

Brian Phinney stated the bare minimum the city could do in the meantime was to convert the wet sprinkler system in the attic to a dry system so the attic space no longer needs to be heated. The project would cost $27,000 but would not address heating on second floor, so those people on that floor would need to be displaced.

Councilor John McCurry made a motion to carry out the second cheapest option, $40,000 to replace the existing failed boiler.

“That option would buy additional time for planning purposes to make a decision on the building,” McCurry said.

Some councilors were strongly opposed to dipping into the city budget to make all the necessary maintenance fixes to the building given the community center’s extensive wear and tear.

“That is one worn out building,” said Councilor Michael Swanton. “It needs to be completely gutted and rebuilt … I’m not going to vote to spend any more money on that building. I don’t feel like spending $5 million on it.”

Despite councilors’ reluctance to invest a lot to repair the community center, each was in agreement that stopgap measures had to be taken to allow the council more time to discussion the best action.

Other councilors expressed their thoughts on the importance of the community center.

“While the building itself might need some TLC to the tune of a lot of money, it is still being used by a lot of the community,” said Councilor Victoria Foley. “If we leave the building what will the city be paying to maintain it to a level where it isn’t totally deteriorated and unsafe.”

Mayor Alan Casavant echoed a similar sentiment.

“I think it’s really important that we vote on this particular motion in the affirmative,” Casavant said. “In my opinion we certainly need a community center. It builds community and is an option for so many people in terms of bringing them together and doing multiple functions. … At least by doing a short-term solution it allows us that type of discussion that (we’re) not just worried about how old the building is or just trying to do something as quickly as we can.”

The motion to provide $40,000 to replace the boiler in the community center was passed unanimously.

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