By Linda Cicoira — Chincoteague council members voted to buy the circa 1930 firehouse on Main Street Monday night for $600,000 with a plan to seek grants for its restoration and possibly put apartments on the second floor.
The building was vacated by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company earlier this year when members moved their gear and vehicles to their new building on Deep Hole Road. Councilwoman Denise Bowden, a spokesperson for the fire company, later said how excited she was about the prospects for the old building and its historical significance. She abstained from voting on the issue due to her service with the company and its board of directors.
The old place has been listed for as high as $950,000 and was most recently advertised for $775,000. It was appraised for $1.2 million about three years ago.
Councilwoman Ellen Richardson remembers when it served as a refuge during the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 that flooded much of the island and lingered through five high tides over a three-day period. “It is the safest building on Chincoteague,” she said. “When flood came that’s where people went.”
A public hearing was conducted just before the issue was decided.
“I think there are wonderful ideas here,” Diane Fisher, of Main Street, said, referring to the agenda packet proposal that included a food court marketplace like at Norfolk’s Waterside. “Maybe something for children,” she said. “Make it a fun place. … Thank you for thinking of this and trying to work something out.”
Another Main Street resident was equally impressed. “I’m very proud of this town. I’m amazed at what a great job you’ve done and compliment the bold step of buying the fire station. She also suggested the town buy Inlet View Campground and turn it into a golf course and marina.
Bill Chrisman moved to the island in 1965. He was happy that “every day I go out and something new is happening. Bicycle marks. The park. The harbor. … When we came here Chincoteague was nothing but a bunch of blown-down chicken houses. A toll bridge that was rickety … The town has made a lot of improvements. … This town is on the move. … How you could ever turn down for that price? Make it something that all the town can benefit from.”
Jeanne Knight, of Sea Shell Drive, was opposed. “I’ve heard it over and over and over again, ‘The town doesn’t have the money,’” She complained that they couldn’t get a boat lift, couldn’t add additional pickups for yard waste, have roads that need repair, and got rid of the town planner due to financial restraints. She said a wastewater system is needed more. “Dancing for children can be done in other places. If you want intern housing, I’m sure there are other places where extensive renovations are not needed.”
Former Councilman Jim Frese had several unanswered questions. “Has an inspection been performed to determine the condition of the firehouse? Is there a mortgage on the building? How much sewer capacity does the building currently have? Is the building connected to a service district? If so, who owns the service district? How is the town going to pay for the $600,000? Debt?”
Frese said the town shouldn’t vote until his questions are addressed and then the public should be given another opportunity to speak. He called for a referendum.
“I was sad that the offers (for the fire hall sale) fell through,” said Mayor Arthur Leonard. “But, I was glad because it gave the town the opportunity. … I think if the town misses this opportunity it would be tragic.” He later said the town had the money to make the purchase.
Councilman Gene Wayne Taylor wanted the town to buy the old building and combine it with an adjacent property for parking so it could be easily sold. He suggested doing so without making a profit. “I’m for private people doing business. I don’t think we should be competing,” said Taylor.
Councilman Ben Ellis voted in favor, but had reservations. He wanted to know more about how they could use it; about the condition of the property, including the roof, the HVAC, and the plumbing; and who would manage and maintain it. He didn’t want to further burden town workers. “I don’t think public works can take that on as another responsibility.”
Councilman Matthew Reed, who is in the construction business, said the cost to renovate would probably be more than 51 percent of its value. He said asbsetos removal would likely have to be considered. “There are a lot of things that we’re going to be held under a microscope for. If we miss one little thing, we’re in trouble. It’s going to cost big money. I’m in favor of helping the fire department any way possible. Myself, I wish I had the money. I love the building.”
The possibility of getting grants for the work appeared to convince him it was worth it. “I don’t want the look of the building to change,” he said.
“You could run the trolleys out of that whole system,” said Richardson. “I think there is potential in it as Elaine Meil (director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission) was very excited. I just think it would an asset.”
The real estate ad said an addition was added in 1957. “Just think of the possibilities with over 13,000 square feet in the heart of Main Street.” It was suggested the firehouse become a brewery/restaurant with its commercial grade kitchen or a wedding venue.