SARANAC LAKE - Town of Harrietstown officials have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in keeping up their historic town hall. Now they may have to spend some more.
The town board met last week with Joe Garso of North Woods Engineering to discuss a long list of potential repairs and upgrades to the 84-year-old building at the corner of Main Street and LaPan Highway.
"The building is still safe, and its overall condition is consistent with its age," Garso said. "It's just time to thoughtfully plan out some repairs. There's also an opportunity to make some improvements and give yourself and the town a building that's going to stick around for another 85 years."
Town of Harrietstown officials say the total cost of repairs to the town hall, seen here Monday, could range from $700,000 to $1.25 million.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
North Woods' recommendations are based on an assessment of the building the firm conducted for the town last year, which are summarized in an 18-page report delivered to the town board.
The list of potential projects ranges from minor and relatively inexpensive work, such as fixing the concrete around the building's main entryway, to more involved and expensive projects like replacing a retaining wall along the Saranac River that was damaged in the spring 2011 floods and restoring exterior masonry.
Town officials haven't decided whether to do all the work at once or spread it out over time, but they are planning to bond or borrow money to cover some of the repairs. Cost estimates mentioned at last week's meeting ranged from $700,000 to $1.25 million.
Councilman Ron Keough said the board's goal is "to see what are the absolute top priority needs in the building because we have a bonding issue we're going to have to face. Some of it is heavy-duty stuff."
The original, wood-framed town hall, which was in the same location as the current one, was destroyed by fire in July 1926. The town board at the time commissioned architects William Scopes and Maurice Feustmann to design a new town hall, construction of which started in 1927 and wrapped up in 1928.
Some areas of the steel-framed, masonry-clad building have been renovated over the years, "but the majority of the building has not undergone extensive renovation since the original construction," Garso's report states. Among the more recent upgrades were in 1999 when the former police station on its lower level became the code enforcement and assessor's offices and the town board's current meeting room. The town replaced most of the building's roof in 2002 and added an elevator on the LaPan Highway side of the town hall in 2005, making the building's upper floors accessible to people in wheelchairs.
The building currently houses the town's offices, a Department of Motor Vehicles office and a courtroom used by both village of Saranac Lake and town justices. In January, the village moved its main offices to the building's second floor. The town hall also has a 670-seat auditorium that hosts numerous events each year and is an important gathering point for the community.
One of the biggest projects the board is considering isn't even part of the town hall; it's the retaining wall behind the building. The concrete and stone wall was undermined in the spring of 2011 when the Saranac River climbed up and over its banks.
"The rear retaining wall has many large void areas and is in poor shape," North Woods Engineering's report states. "It is neither safe nor structurally sound."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered the town roughly $71,000, but that wouldn't be enough to replace the full length of the wall, Garso said.
"That amount is basically only for 40 feet of wall, not for the entire roughly 100 feet of wall that's back there," Garso said at the meeting. "Their feeling was that 40 feet, centered on the pole back there, is what was damaged in the flood, and the remainder of the wall they say is in good enough condition."
Garso and town officials disagree and believe it makes more sense to replace the full length of the wall. North Woods has estimated that to build a new, pre-cast concrete retaining wall, including setting up a temporary dam in the river to do the work, could cost $330,000. That doesn't include the cost of utility work or removing and replacing the River Walk, which is located next to the retaining wall and was also damaged in the flood. That could bring the project up to $365,000, Garso said.
Town Building Supervisor John Wheeler noted that water from the floods made it up to the building's foundation, creating fears that the area behind the town hall may have also been undermined. Although the retaining wall is the priority, town officials said it might make sense to excavate the entire area behind the building and stabilize it at the same time.
Garso said it would take between six weeks and two months to secure the necessary permits from the state Adirondack Park Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies.
Sections of the building's exterior brick facade are also in rough shape, especially the pilasters, or projecting columns, around the auditorium, which are cracking. With the exception of the elevator addition, the facade is primarily the original brick.
"We're fairly sure there's some type of water infiltration in the pilasters," Garso said. "What we're going to find in there will be steel columns. I can't tell you what condition the columns are in; it's going to depend on how long the leaking has been going on. But that's something that should be considered for repair."
Garso also said there are areas where bricks have degraded, primarily in the higher portion of the town hall. There are also problems with mortar joints around the building, he said.
Although his report recommends the town set aside $150,000 for masonry improvements, just how much it could end up costing is difficult to determine, Garso said, in part because some of the areas can't be inspected without a lift. He suggested assigning a specific dollar figure the town wants to spend and doing as much patching and brick replacement as that will allow.
But Keough cautioned the board about doing too much of the project in a piecemeal fashion.
"If we look at this in a piecemeal way, as opposed to doing a total project, costs are going to rise each of those years subsequent to this year," Keough said. "The longer it's delayed, the more the cost is going to be."
Regardless of how the town moves forward, once the facade is repaired, it will need to be maintained regularly in the future, Councilman Barry DeFuria said.
"We're going to do hundreds of thousands of dollars of work here, and we need to do something to preserve it and keep it that way for as long as we can," he said.
The large windows on each side of the auditorium are the original single-pane, steel-frame windows that were put in when the building was constructed in the late 1920s. They're still functional, but the building loses a lot of heat through them, Garso said.
"Replacing them would create a big savings in heat," he said, comparing it to the recent window replacement at Petrova Elementary and Middle School. "The drawback is, the amount of money you save on heat, the payback on a window replacement is 20 to 30 years. And window replacement on a historic structure is a big deal."
Replacing the auditorium and other windows in the building was listed as a "long-term improvement" in Garso's report because the work would be so costly, although no cost estimate was given.
Among other projects, the town records room in the basement of the building, below the auditorium stage, has several overhead heating pipes that aren't being used and could leak and damage the town's files. Garso recommended the space be reconfigured or the town find another space to store records. DeFuria said the town could construct a small building at the town-owned Adirondack Regional Airport to store its records.
Garso also recommended the town spend roughly $32,000 to renovate and make the building's second-floor bathrooms handicapped accessible.
Sections of concrete at the main entryway at the front of the building are also chipped, cracked and in need of about $1,200 in repairs, the report states.
Some seats in the auditorium's balcony have ripped cushions or need to be replaced. Garso suggested the town repair at least five to 10 seats a year, the cost of which, he said, would be fairly minimal.
Some of the work recommended in Garso's report has already been done, such as electrical upgrades in the courtroom and sealing work around the inside of the town hall's clock tower, where water infiltration had been noticed during an inspection last year.
While some of the smaller and less costly projects could be put in the town budget, town officials said they may have to borrow money for the bigger-ticket items like the retaining wall and the masonry work.
Garso offered to sit down with the town's building committee to come up with more specific cost estimates.
"You've got to have an estimate first so you can get bonding, and you've got to have bonding secured before you can advertise for a job," Garso said.
Town Budget Officer Mike Kilroy cautioned the board against doing the big projects piecemeal, "only because every time you go out for bonding, you're spending $40,000 for bond counsel and official statements. It's going to be more expensive, yes, but go for it all at once."
Kilroy also said the town should consider doing the window project.
"If it's feasible, do it," he said. "Don't just kick it out now and say there's no payback. If you're going to (bond) for $700,000 or $800,000 and you can do the windows, you might as well do it."
Keough said Kilroy's cost estimate might be too conservative.
"Realistically, we'll see what we can manage financially, but to take care of the critical issues that are here, and since there are some unknowns, if you're not looking at a million or a million and a quarter, I'd be very surprised," Keough said.