BARRE — Long-neglected, but not forgotten the city’s public works complex should soon be getting a fresh look as part of a process aimed to determine whether to redevelop the Burnham Street campus, or move it to an entirely new location.
When that might actually happen is a very different question.
On Tuesday night, city councilors were presented with an admittedly “aggressive” timeline that suggests they could solicit bids from contractors interested in taking on the multi-million dollar project this time next year.
Wednesday morning, City Manager Steve Mackenzie said the scenario outlined by Public Works Director Bill Ahearn was “overly optimistic.”
That isn’t to say Mackenzie isn’t interested in advancing a project that has simmered on Barre’s back burner since long before he took over as Barre’s chief executive in 2010. He is.
In fact, Mackenzie had hoped to materially advance the project before postponing his planned retirement earlier this year.
After opting for a two-year extension that will keep him on the job through 2022, Mackenzie is now ready to spend design money he included in a $560,000 bond issue voters approved during the city’s Town Meeting Day elections in 2019. The $80,000 earmark will finance a conceptual planning process designed to answer threshold questions about the future of the public works campus that features an inefficient mix of mostly obsolete buildings that shelter millions of dollars worth of municipal equipment and supplies.
More than two years after touring the 3.5-acre public works campus with councilors and 18 months after voters approved a bond that included funding to advance the project, Mackenzie said a request for proposals will be released Monday.
“We’ve really reached a milestone here,” he told councilors during their virtual meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to get this thing out the door and start the process.”
Hoping to leverage additional federal “stimulus” funds if and when they become available, Mackenzie and Ahearn said there is some urgency to starting the conceptual planning process and preparing to immediately pivot to final design.
The timeline prepared by Ahearn envisions such a seamless transition — one that would see work to create bid-ready construction documents start as soon as a preferred solution has been identified with the help of a soon-to-be-hired consultant next summer.
Mackenzie echoed the value of having a “shovel-ready” project if federal funding suddenly becomes available, but explained Wednesday there are still hurdles to clear for that to happen and even if everything breaks right the idea of putting the project out to bid next September and selecting a contractor two months later are probably remote.
According to preliminary estimates, final design will cost roughly $150,000 and Mackenzie doesn’t yet know where that money will come from. That, he said, likely will be a topic of council conversation during budget deliberations in coming months.
While the path forward is somewhat muddled, Mackenzie said two things are crystal clear. First, he said, the well-documented shortcomings of the existing public works campus — some functional, others structural — won’t fix themselves. Secondly, Barre vote voters can’t afford to foot the entire bill for a project preliminary estimates suggest could easily cost $4.5 million to $5 million.
Mackenzie has the money in hand to finance phase-one work that, among other things, will test those estimates, while developing a proposal that can be taken to the next level.
Actually, consultants will be asked to present the council with a “least cost” option, as well as a “best value” proposal. The former would last 25 years, while the latter would be a 50-year solution.
Mackenzie favors the latter and Mayor Lucas Herring wondered why the city would even consider a proposal with a lifespan that could conceivably be shorter than the debt service obligation needed to finance it.
Ahearn said the hope is to take a thorough look at redeveloping the existing campus on Burnham Street, while vetting some alternate locations for a facility that would bring the city’s streets, water and sewer departments under one state-of-the-art roof. He cited potential locations on North Main, Merchant, Allen and Railroad streets as possible options.
The soon-to-be-commissioned work should allow the council to select a site and settle and provide them with a preliminary design for a new facility by next summer.
“It’s an important step,” Mackenzie said.
Whether and when to invest in the final design is a decision that hasn’t yet been made, and Mackenzie said it is even less clear when voters might be asked to approve long-term financing for what he hopes will be the city’s share of the project.