Parish Center Bid Is Called a Long Shot

By CHRIS BURRELL

They escaped a town hall that was making Oak Bluffs employees sick, but their new quarters on School street are so cramped for meeting space that selectmen are attempting a far-fetched solution - buying back or swapping the old school building sold to the Catholic church six years ago.

"At the time the building was sold by the town, we were confident that it was of little or no use to us; since then, town hall was relocated to its current site across the street and we now find ourselves in need of additional office space," town administrator Casey Sharpe wrote to the Rev. Michael Nagle last month.

The problem is that the Fall River Diocese likely has no interest in relinquishing the 15,000-square-foot building that it bought from the town for $225,000 back in 1997.

The church uses the building as its parish center, holding religious classes there and hosting a fitness center for Island teenagers.

Father Nagle told Ms. Sharpe last month that he would not support selling the parish center. "I myself would not be in favor of the move because we are settled in and it would be a major pain for me," he wrote in a letter to the Oak Bluffs town administrator.

The town's pitch to the church - which Ms. Sharpe described as a "long-shot" - comes just weeks before a new town hall renovation committee is set to convene for its first meeting.

"Father Nagle has made it clear that he's not supportive, but I figured I should ask him. That building has more of a town hall look, and we're here on a low budget," said Ms. Sharpe.

A proposal at the annual town meeting this year asked voters to spend $750,000 on a renovation project at the town hall on School street, but they defeated the measure, calling for better planning and a design process that reflected the importance of the town's flagship public building.

The five committee members, officially named by selectmen last week, are Richard Combra Jr., Edward O'Melia, Alison Shaw, David Wessling and David Wilson.

Mr. Wilson told the Gazette this week that it's premature for the committee to comment on the process, but Ms. Sharpe said the first task for the new board is to select a designer.

"We want to come up with something consistent with the church parish center and the new library," she said.

Town leaders have frequently referred to the campus concept, citing the fact that the new library will be built directly behind the present town hall, which was renovated for town offices back in February of 2000.

Town hall employees left behind a building that made many of them sick, but the new space not only lacks a meeting room but also comes with a confounding layout.

Offices are spread out on two floors with no elevator, forcing residents who come looking for assistance to exit the building and walk around to the lower level if they want to find the building inspector after talking with the assessors, for instance.

"All the town offices will be accessible to taxpayers if they're all on one floor," said Ms. Sharpe.

From a pragmatic viewpoint, the plan is simple: Put all offices upstairs and build a meeting space downstairs. Ms. Sharpe said additional construction would happen on the Pacific avenue side of the building, where the old school gym, cafeteria and locker rooms once sat before they were demolished.

"We're trying to be cost-effective and smart," said Ms. Sharpe, who estimates that it would cost $500,000 to do the construction and another $250,000 to integrate the systems - electrical, heating and technology.

Currently, selectmen have no place in town hall to hold regular meetings; instead, they use the Oak Bluffs School for their meetings, ranging between the Megan Alley Community Room, the home economics classroom and the school library.

"If we were to have a meeting room on the basement floor of town hall with access from the back parking lot, it would allow a substantial-sized facility," said Richard Combra, chairman of the selectmen.

Plans to renovate the town hall space come at the same time that library trustees are redesigning a vastly larger new library space. Bids for that project came in over the $3.5 million budgeted.

Mr. Combra said the next public building project on the list is certainly the police station, which is currently using portions of the old town hall downtown. Meanwhile, selectmen have been negotiating with the Steamship Authority about the possibility of leasing the old town hall for use as a new terminal for the Oak Bluffs port.

If the old school building - now held by the Catholic church - is any lesson, Oak Bluffs won't be selling its old town hall.

"Some would say we did that in haste," Mr. Combra said of the deal to sell the school and its 29,000-square-foot campus. But he said that before the new town hall renovation committee started its work, his board wanted to know if buying back the old school was an option.