WALPOLE — It’s been the Town Hall, a courthouse, movie theater, and gym — and it’s currently the police station. Now the future of the historic building in the center of downtown is up in the air again.
One possibility: moving out the police, and moving in the Fire Department. If that doesn’t fly, the town should consider “making the building available to a private developer for commercial or retail use,” according to a proposed master plan for Walpole’s municipal properties.
Produced by a private consultant for the town of 24,000, the 158-page plan is a multimillion-dollar proposal with a multitude of parts. They include building a new $8.7 million police station outside the center of town and renovating the Old Town Hall into offices for the Fire Department. The offices would be attached to a new fire station with enough room for all the town’s fire equipment — all for a cost of about $11.7 million.
The broader plan also calls for a new $5 million senior center, improvements to the Department of Public Works and town-owned Blackburn Hall, and a new $49 million middle school, which would replace two existing ones.
“There are no surprises on what the town needs,” Board of Selectmen chairman Eric Kraus said of the study by the Maguire Group in Boston. “The question is, how do we pay for it?
“There are a lot of moving pieces. The issue is, can we come up with a funding source to handle one, some, or all of the recommendations? Nothing will be done if we don’t have the financial resources,” he said.
Michael Amaral, chairman of the Walpole Historical Commission, said he hopes the financial issues don’t doom the Old Town Hall, one of his favorite places in the community.
“I worry that people will say it will cost too much to renovate,” Amaral said. “But we have a responsibility to take care of our historic treasures, even in hard times.”
Since 2006, Walpole voters have twice rejected increasing their property taxes to pay for a new police station. In 2011, voters shot down a proposal to buy the old Walpole Woodworkers property as a possible site for a public safety facility for both the police and fire departments.
The last successful Proposition 2½ override for a public building project was a 2009 vote to build a new library, and it passed by only eight votes.
The trend can be traced all the way back to the late 1800s, according to Walpole history buffs.
“Town officials might take solace in knowing that their forefathers in town government shared many of the same frustrations in their efforts to get voter approval for new town facilities,” local blogger Samuel Obar wrote recently. “Walpole voters have shown a strong aversion to municipal construction projects.”
The Old Town Hall (then new) is a good example of that reluctance, he said.
Newspaper accounts from the 1880s detail an acrimonious debate over the cost of the facility, with much of the discussion focused on whether it should be built of brick or less expensive wood. The proposal failed twice before the brick design won approval.
But local citizens embraced the imposing building, with its clock and bell tower and two-story assembly room with a balcony. The party celebrating its opening on Sept. 28, 1881, was the largest gathering of people ever assembled in Walpole up to that time, Amaral said.
The building — designed in the Queen Anne style by Boston architect J. Williams Beal — cost $29,322.65, and became a landmark on downtown Main Street, he said.
The structure originally housed town offices, a library, and the Police Department. Over the years, it was used as a courthouse for western Norfolk County, a Civil War veterans’ post, the town’s first movie theater, and a gymnasium, according to Amaral.
“It’s the soul of the town; it’s a great building,” he said, noting that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
Police Chief Richard Stillman is less enthused with the building, at least as a police station.
The Police Department moved out of the building in 1954 — into a combined public safety building next door.
When that space became too cramped, the police moved back to the then-vacant Old Town Hall in the mid-1980s, Stillman said. The department has been trying to get into more commodious quarters for years, he added.
“Everything about the building is antiquated,” Stillman said. “We’ve tried to fix everything we can fix, but we’re at the end of our rope. The dispatch center is way too small, the officers have little teeny lockers like in high school so equipment is piled up everywhere. There are no shower facilities, the cells are [substandard, and] we’ve had significant leakage problems when it rains.
“This morning when I came into work my office was 47 degrees” because the furnace wasn’t working, he said. “It’s just one problem after another.”
Stillman said he likes the plan recommended by the Maguire Group, which calls for a new 18,000-square-foot police station across from the town’s Department of Public Works on Washington Street and next to a proposed new senior center. The current station has about 11,000 square feet of space for the 39-officer department.
“I think it’s a great plan, but I’m not hugely optimistic” about its chances, Stillman said. “I’ve been let down before.”
For his part, Amaral said he cared most that the Old Town Hall is preserved and remains open to the public, whether it’s publicly or privately owned.
The Maguire Group examined 21 municipal buildings, checked out potential development sites, spoke with town leaders, examined town finances, studied school enrollment trends, looked at comparable factors in neighboring towns, and reviewed previous proposals and reports before recommending five major projects:
■ $5 million for a 15,000-square-foot senior center on Washington Street, across from the Department of Public Works. The senior center now occupies one wing of the present-day Town Hall, which was originally Walpole’s Stone School.
■ $8.7 million for a police station, also on Washington Street across from the DPW. The two-story, handicapped-accessible building would share parking with the senior center.
■ $11.7 million for the central fire station. The project would involve building a new fire station at the current site to accommodate all the town’s firefighting equipment and renovating the adjacent Old Town Hall for Fire Department offices.
■ $3.5 million for renovations, an addition, and site upgrades to the DPW site.
■ $48.9 million for a combined middle school, replacing two current middle schools.
The study also recommended improvements at many other town-owned properties. Selectmen plan to hold public forums on the study, starting on Feb. 26.
“We want to get taxpayer input, and then make some difficult decisions,” Kraus said.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.