Determining what to do with the 13.3-acre site of the former Milton J. Fuller Elementary School is going to be one of the major tasks of 2013 for Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk and the City Council.
An online survey taken this fall to gauge public sentiment drew 800 responses, which Kirk said indicated support for the option she favored: a lease/sale agreement with a YMCA or similar organization — such as a Jewish community center — with a new, abutting police-fire facility; some office space for municipal employees; and the preschool that is currently operating there.
But at its meeting Tuesday, the City Council opted to take a different course, voting to hold a nonbinding referendum to determine which of three options are favored by residents: converting the site to a municipal office facility; keeping it as a school; or selling or leasing the property.
Kirk was critical of the council decision and said she may veto it.
“It just demonstrates an inability to make a decision,” she said. “This is too complex a question to be simplified onto a ballot question, which is why we did the survey.
“At this point, this could be another city property that lies vacant for 25 years. This city gets twisted around itself and has a hard time moving forward.”
If the council prevails, the city could hold a special election or include the referendum on the ballot in the election next November, according to Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga, a member of the council’s Planning and Development Committee, which made the proposal that was accepted by the full council.
Verga, a former School Committee member, said he found the online survey unscientific, with too small a sample in a city of approximately 29,000 residents.
He said that while there have been public forums on the subject, the city has not yet adequately gauged community opinion.
Verga said he also has reservations about selling to a nonprofit, which would not be required to pay taxes on the property.
“If we’re looking to sell or lease, we should be looking at the maximum we can get out of it, and what will benefit the most people,” he said. “Maybe in the end there is a good strong argument made for it, but for now I just don’t think we’re at that point.”
The mayor disagreed about the quality of the survey, noting the depth of its questions, and said that this was not an issue that lends itself to a ballot question.
“The YMCA option resonates the most with the community,” said Kirk. “That is my sense of it, and that is confirmed in the survey.
“The reason I think it’s a good idea is that we spent a lot of time talking about this, studying it, looking at the building, looking at different scenarios, gauging community support, getting feedback. We had a yearlong facilities committee that met with staff and citizens month after month. I came at it through a long analytical and listening process, and now it’s been affirmed in the survey.”
Not surprisingly, survey respondents did not favor paying for any project through an increase in property taxes. However, the police-fire facility could be built with cost savings from the two public-private wind turbines that are expected to be producing power by the end of the week.
Jack Meany, chief executive officer of the North Shore YMCA, said the former school’s location, at 4 Schoolhouse Road off Route 128, and space for parking are attractive lures.
“We’ve been interested in the Fuller School site for some time,” said Meany. “It’s been very difficult for that [downtown] YMCA to be as successful as it could be.
“We always thought that the Fuller site was perfect and we’ve been trying to be included in the mix when the city finally decided what to do with it.”
The fate of the former elementary school has remained undetermined since the school department ended classes there in 2008. It is largely vacant, with just one-tenth of its 176,700 square feet being used for a city-run preschool and school administrative offices. School buses park in the lot.
Because of general deterioration and costs, the school’s auditorium and gymnasium are no longer used for community events.
In late 2011, the city commissioned a consultant’s study that presented four reuse options: a commercial office development; a retail development; a mixed-use project with commercial office development and a new police-fire building; and a mixed-use development that includes a new police-fire facility and a renovated building that would house a YMCA and office space.
Verga said details on the options will come prior to the vote. “There’ll be a lot of conversations between now and then,” he said.