NEWTON – The discussion at the Newton Town Council had some heated moments last night, Monday, Nov. 25, as firefighters and members of the community piled into the meeting room, to discuss the fate of the Newton Fire Museum.
The council, after dialogue several times throughout the night with residents, fire museum officials, and among themselves, decided to proceed with the next planned phase of repairs on the museum, and permit the fire museum 18 months to raise funds and volunteers.
Before the topic came up for on the agenda as an “Old Business” item, however, there was a line at the microphone for the first public portion.
Public Portion Remarks
The first to speak was Dan Finkle, the museum’s volunteer curator.
Finkle said since the last meeting on Oct. 28, the Newton Fire Museum’s committee discussed options for in-kind services, and donations of materials, to keep costs down.
“We have professionals and businesses that are excited to contribute,” Finkle said.
He added, “Maintaining the museum’s present location in the shopping district gives it a key advantage of benefiting our neighboring merchants.”
One of the museum’s latest acquisitions, a 1948 Mack that the museum sought out, and brought back to Newton, was another point Finkle brought up, as to the commitment level of the museum.
“When we took into account what it was worth to our community, rather than a traditional purchase of a used vehicle, the answer was crystal clear,” he said. “The fire renovation project will share the same success.”
Finkle pointed out that the state identified Sussex County as a prime tourist destination, and the museum is “in a prime position to attract visitors to our town and support the tourism industry county-wide.”
He noted three firemen who have passed away recently – Bernie Shea, Jack Plegar, and Charlie Thom, who have given over 150 years of volunteer service collectively.
“The museum serves as a memorial and tribute to those who have given so much of their lives to the citizens of this town,” Finkle said.
Finkle said the memorabilia collection is estimated in excess of $4 million, with most of the artifacts deriving from within the town.
“An investment to repair this historic structure will not only serve to protect this historic collection but also help to continue the efforts to revitalize our downtown,” said Finkle.
He presented a petition with signature of over 830 citizens, asking the town to complete the renovation on the exterior, with the museum coordinating the interior.
County Historian, Wayne McCabe, was next to speak, presenting a brief history of the museum, for which he said, the foundation was laid in 1891, and completed the following year. It served as a firehouse until 1979, and then became a museum. During that time, the museum was also used for town council meetings, and a polling location.
He said the relics housed in the museum, include the apparatus, plus hundreds of historic photos, ribbons commemorating events, numerous presentation items, silver speaking trumpets, and more.
“All of these artifacts reflect the role the fire department played in our town,” he said.
McCabe expressed to the council the importance of the museum, since Newton has received designation from the state as a development and redevelopment center for its designation as a town center, the first in the state to achieve this, and the museum is a critical part of the future.
Over the last 20 years, McCabe said, the repairs to the structure have been minor, and are now faced with the situation to make major improvements.
He said that the Sussex County Historical Society has plans to work closely with the Newton Fire Museum, to cooperate together on educational programs for students and the community. Some of that cooperation includes, storing some of the relics from the fire museum at their location, while renovations are taking place.
“Tonight you have the opportunity to do something very positive for our town,” McCabe said, then quoted John Steinbeck, “’How will we know it’s us if we don’t know what our past is?”
Neil Flaherty spoke from the perspective of having worked with the South Street Seaport Museum for the last 30 years.
He reminded the council that things can become costly when “dealing with years of benign neglect,” and it would be worth it to make improvements.
“The public is served by preserving our history,” he said.
Of the museum Flaherty said, “It’s a focal point of what makes Newton a special place,” and by removing it from Downtown, he added it would be like cutting the heart out of the downtown.
Discussion During “Old Business”
When it came time to discuss “Old Business,” with the fire museum earmarked under that category, Mayor Joseph Ricciardo said, “As you know we’ve been discussing this for quite a long time.”
He said part of the reason was to review all potential options, without levying the taxpayers.
One of the proposals, pre-engineering the building, was $1.1 million, which was taken off of the table. Renovation of the museum, with masonry repair (already underway), plus handling of the cistern, was estimated at $250,000, plus other improvements, for a price tag of about $638,000. The fire patrol building could be sold to offset costs, which would lower it by about $180,000.
Another option presented was to upgrade the fire patrol building and then sell the Spring Street, for a tab of about $337,000 (plus accounting for the $45,000 already invested into the Spring Street Project).
The final was to sell both buildings, then search for a suitable new building. There would be storage costs incurred for the fire museum items.
Ricciardo asked that the fire museum officials consider their choices well, and ask themselves how they can raise the funds, if the project has to go to bid, who will supervise it, and if the funds can be raised before the construction commences.
Discussion became tense between Ricciardo and Joe Inga, who is one of those officials involved with the fire museum. Inga said seven months were lost in the process of council discussion, when it could have been open. He said that the museum has the commitment from a curator at the Smithsonian, to help them continue to grow it.
“We are committed to doing what we can to open it,” Inga said, and then gave the town officials some stern words, “If you abandon this project, I would have problem as a taxpayer.”
Inga said that the fate of the museum sits in the hands of “the five up there.”
“It’s still a town building, I’m asking you to finish the project and make the building tight,” he said.
Inge said the museum group has commitments from Home Depot and other professionals, and guidance offered from experts at the Smithsonian.
When they were at a fire museum convention in New York City where they met the representative from the Smithsonian, Inga said, “We found out we are a unique museum in the entire country.”
That is because the items in the museum actually belonged to Newton, and in many fire museums, there are varieties of items from everywhere.
If this doesn’t help the town, I don’t know what does,” Inga said.
Ricciardo emphasized licensed professionals must oversee the job.
Ricciardo and Inga volleyed back and forth with their commentary, with Inga asking what the council thought seven, eight or nine months ago, when the town had the architect drawing the plans up. Ricciardo replied the town did not know about the cistern.
“We’re not going to do something half-assed to preserve the museum to see it open,” Ricciardo said, indicating he was fine with using the terminology “half-assed.”
“The idea of using the patrol building, take it off the table,” Inga stood firm, adding it was not the right fit, as it was not in the downtown and people would not find it.
“If the museum is that great, they’re going to find it,” Ricciardo fired back.
“That’s your legacy, Joe,” Inga retorted.
Town Manager Thomas S. Russo, Jr., intervened, to simmer down the tension.
“The reason we spent so many months is the council wanted to make it a very thorough process,” he said.
Russo also admitted he was the one who brought up the possibility of the fire patrol building as an option.
Russo summarized the options, with the current project originally budgeted around $207,000, and now running around $640,000 — with the fire patrol building proceeds, it could deduct approximately $150,000, leaving “$200,000 or north of that for fundraising.”
Ursula Leo, the town’s attorney was asked to step in and discuss other concerns. She said if the town is doing the work, they “won’t have to deal with prevailing wage or bidding.” There must still be a permitting process and appropriate licensing will be sought. She said fundraising is acceptable.
“The main problem is all of work is going to be outside of the town’s insurance,” she said.
Leo said that if volunteers work on the project, workman’s compensation would not apply, and was concerned about the liability if someone was injured or the work was not performed properly.
Finkle said that the museum is required to have insurance, has liability on its lease and will speak with their agent to ensure “all the proper coverage is obtained.”
Councilwoman Sandra Diglio suggested an inquiry should be made if the Home Depot volunteers, who have worked on the VFW building, have their own liability coverage.
Finkle said they are also getting help with grant applications. Finkle said, however, if the doors are not open, the museum cannot apply for grants.
He asked, however, “If the town isn’t willing to make this initial investment, how can I ask anyone else to contribute?”
Ricciardo clarified, “We have already committed $270,000, it’s not like we’ve never made a commitment.”
Councilwoman Kristi Becker offered to meet with the committee and the Smithsonian Director, to seek more information about their recommendations.
Ricciardo asked what could happen if the group did not obtain enough donations, like the Main Street Newton Group, which initially had commitments, and then, “couldn’t raise enough money to buy stamps.”
“As long as it’s done with plans done by professionals, I think it’s a fair compromise,” said Ricciardo, in terms of the group’s fundraising.
Finkle said the group has thought of, and will continue to think of, ways to lower costs, and prioritize,to do things in stages.
Wayne McCabe returned to the microphone again, and suggested that certain items could be removed from the town’s roster, such as new windows for $32,000, which he described as sound.
“I don’t think we need to spend that type of money,” he said.
Materials suggested for the roof could also be worked around, he added.
Neil Flaherty said monies were raised for the 4H building at fairgrounds, which was a $225,000 project.
“I would not underestimate a dedicated group of volunteers without a purpose,” he said.
Jonathan Andrews from the Springboard Shoppes said that volunteer labor must be added into the budget, as hours willing to be put in as a commitment.
Mike Alvarez, was another person who stepped up to the microphone, and who said, local unions workers were willing volunteers.
They named Mike Brucker as one electrical contractor already willing to step up to the plate, as well as a licensed plumber.
Ricciardo clarified, “I have no problem with volunteers,” but added that professionals needed to, “sign and seal it.”
Becker said no one should underestimate the work of Tom Kosten and Cory Stoner, the town’s architect and engineer.
“They were thoughtful in their planning, and I hope you will take what they have worked on into consideration,” Becker said.
Becker complimented the fire museum group for their momentum gained.
Deputy Mayor Kevin Elvidge said, “I am thankful no decision has been made in the last seven months, there wasn’t any rush to decision. I think were in such a unique situation, the council was in such a tough position.”
He added that, “Tonight was an example of new facts coming to you at the last minute. The council had to digest each of these as an option.”
“No one wants to see he museum torn down, replaced, moved,” said Elvidge.
“I think there’s a solution now that can be reached,” Elvidge continued, “You need to understand what the price tag could be and the timing issue. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Diglio added,” I want to thank Dan and the committee for what they’ve done. I’m against tearing the building down and I think we should have the fireman give the commitment for what want they want to do.”
Councilman Dan Flynn said, “I don’t want the building to be sold.”
If so, he suggested the shell remain and the building be repurposed.
He said he was not fond of the idea to have a vacant building, as it was not in the vision plan.
Anwar Qarmout came to the microphone and suggested the town’s idea that they could reap $150,000 from selling the fire patrol building, was not realistic.
“Realistically, I think you could get $50,000, no one’s going to pay that in this economy. Realistically, you’re $100,000 off.”
He also did not agree with placing a timeframe on fundraising for the group.
“Why in all fairness to all these volunteers would you want to limit them in the worst economy in this generation that they should not have a time limit?” he asked.
He felt as long as the museum group was actively raising funds, that was the most important goal.
“If they want to raise that money and they can they should have no limit,” he said.
Qarmout addressed the potential that other departments will chip in with labor.
“Other fireman throughout the county will come to their rescue,” Qarmout said. “I think firemen all around will have a brotherhood and they will be mobbed.”
James Ceravallo, who is a Spring Street building owner, said, “The last thing I want to see is the fire museum move and fall apart. I’ve never had the privilege of being a fireman, they are a group of dedicated people and we shouldn’t stop them from their goal.”
He noted about the Liberty Ship projects in California and Baltimore, and how volunteers raised $12.5 million.”
“I believe in them [the fire museum], and I would be willing to make a financial commitment to them so they could move forward,” Ceravallo said.
The Next Phase
Russo asked if it was permissible then for him to direct that the $277,000 be spent to complete the exterior masonry and cistern. Other parts of the project included working on the drainage issue on the side in the alleyway.
The next step is for the museum project to move ahead, and be sealed for the winter months. Part of that may involve providing heat to let the remaining mortar set, which will cost approximately $13,000 to complete. The fire department offered to stand on fire watch in shifts during that time, which would take 48 hours. By using the fire department for the watch, it would reduce the costs.
If no heating is required, if the temperatures warm up, Kosten said, no watch would be required, and then the rest of the work could be held off until the Spring. The cistern work could be completed over the winter.
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