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Durango fire chief shares dream for school administration building

Goal is to make it a community cornerstone, says Hal Doughty
Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, describes Wednesday the early plans they have for the Durango Big Picture High School building. If the Durango School District 9-R School Board approves the purchase agreement, the fire district will take over ownership of the building and the historic administrative building next door. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Durango Fire Protection District is the leading contender to purchase the historic school district administration building in the heart of downtown – but the real estate move has community members mystified.

It was revealed late last month that Durango School District 9-R had entered into a letter of intent to sell the 4.3-acre campus to the fire district, which wants to build a new fire station on the property.

Community members responded with surprise, incredulity and, in some cases, resistance.

“We are in the fact-gathering mode, trying to understand what was proposed by the fire district and why,” said Karen Brucoli Anesi, vice president of the Boulevard Neighborhood Association, which spans much of the historic residential area along East Third Avenue.

The school district had four offers for the location, and several members of the public expressed outrage that the district did not choose an offer from the owners of the Smiley Building that would include attainable housing units for 9-R teachers.

Anesi said she wants information to be shared, which she is “confident” the fire district will do.

“Right now, this feels like the kind of mess that leaves a lot of people uncomfortable and second-guessing, wasting the energy that is needed to move forward constructively,” Anesi said. “That is what I am hoping for – that we can move forward constructively.”

Fire Chief Hal Doughty said transparency is his goal. In fact, not only is the district already reaching out to neighbors, but the vision for the new building is entirely community-oriented, he said.

“We want to have this be the return of the fire station to the cornerstone of the community ... where kids feel safe to come here, where parents are drawn here for meetings,” Doughty said. “We feel like there’s a huge opportunity for us to do all of that stuff.”

What are they thinking?

Anesi and Tony Rocha, president of the neighborhood association, had a multitude of questions about the real estate agreement, which is in its early stages.

“Why cannot the fire district build a unique facility at the current location at 12th and Camino?” Rocha said in an email to The Durango Herald.

A move would directly affect the historic downtown area. Then there are the sirens, flashing lights and large trucks on small, residential streets to consider.

“I understand the need for a new fire department administrative building and garage,” he said. “Certainly, that is in the interest of our community, but the historic building can also benefit the greater good for the city if remodeled in such a way to provide low-cost housing for our community educators.”

Anesi wants more information – about the fire district’s current station, its other alternatives and the reasoning behind the plan. She also wants more public participation.

Durango Fire Chief Hal Doughty, front, and Randy Back, deputy chief, share how fire trucks would enter and leave the area near the Durango Big Picture High School in the heart of downtown Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For the school district, the plan to sell the building is an effort to meet school funding needs, district officials said.

“The reason 9-R even entered into selling this building in the first place is because we don’t have enough money,” said Samantha Gallagher, the district’s chief financial officer.

As part of the real estate deal, the Board of Education wants to ensure the property is maintained as a public asset, make sure historic property standards are met and fetch an appropriate price for the benefit local schools, she said.

“Once you sell it one time, you’re out of it, and you have no control over what happens in the future,” Gallagher said. “I think that weighed heavily on the board.”

The Durango Fire Protection District said the downtown fire station at River City Hall was meant to be temporary – since 1983 – and some areas of the fire station do not meet fire code.

The fire district is leasing the building from the city of Durango, but the city has other plans for the property, and for years the fire district has searched for other opportunities.

Properties kept getting snapped up, and 19 attempts to purchase a property didn’t pan out, the district said.

“What I finally realized was, if I keep holding my breath and waiting for City Council to do the right thing, the right thing is never going to happen,” Doughty said. “I just felt strongly that unless I jump out and do something to make sure there’s a spot from which we can protect this community, it’s never going to happen.”

Then there is the building itself.

The Durango Fire Protection District’s downtown fire station has water stains next to light fixtures on the ceiling, a small kitchen with paint peeling from cabinets and truck bays that don’t fit fire trucks.

The emergency medical services and fire captains have to meet with employees in their bedrooms. Desks sit just feet from beds.

The EMS captain is lucky: two chairs fit in the room. In the fire captain’s room, employees must sit on a bed when they’re meeting with their superior, or vice versa.

Women must use showers located in the men’s bathroom. The fire captain’s room and the men’s bunks do not have secondary exits – which is noncompliant with fire code.

“It’s pretty bad when the fire department is not compliant with the fire code. And we can’t fix it,” said Randy Black, deputy chief of operations. “It’s not the right use of taxpayer money to try to remodel a building we know we’ve been on the short list to get kicked out of forever.”

So the fire district made a bid to buy the administration building, and the Board of Education identified the fire department as a preferred buyer.

“I’m really happy that we’re able to, not only keep this as a community asset hopefully, but then longer-term, this will still stay a public use facility,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s really a huge benefit to our community.”

Durango Fire Chief Hal Doughty said the fire district will try to keep as much of the historic properties of the administration building during renovations, if the deal is approved. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
The plan

The school district and fire district have not finalized the real estate transaction.

First, the school district needs to split the property, leaving Buckley Park out of the transaction. Then, the two districts have to enter into a purchase agreement, wrap up the closing period and finish the process.

Then the fire district will develop a design for the property over 18 months, Doughty said.

“A lot of this is theoretical at this point,” he said. “We’re not trying to be divisive with anybody. ... This is the community’s money we’re spending on this, and it has been the community’s building for over 100 years.”

Because the administration building has a historic designation, the fire district can only renovate the interior.

Extra space would provide an opportunity for an emergency services center and community use. The auditorium where the school board meets could be used for organized responses to major fires or for training sessions with national speakers.

The fire district would still make mid-sized meeting rooms and other administrative space available to the 9-R school district, he said.

All or some of the Big Picture High School building would be torn down, but its exterior would likely copy the historic exterior of the current administration building.

Part of the area would be rebuilt into five bays for fire engines, ambulances, ladder trucks and an EMS supervisor truck. They’re still deciding where crew bunks will be located. The existing gym will be modernized as the crew’s training and workout area, he said.

Members of the public have already told the fire district they’re worried about hearing sirens all of the time, Doughty said.

“We’re really mindful of our neighborhood and neighbors,” he said.

The district’s trucks would leave and enter the property in a loop. They would pull out of the bay onto 12th Street, which would provide access to Main, East Second or East Third avenues, depending on location of the emergency.

They would return on 13th Street next to Buckley Park and pull into the bay. As it is now, fire trucks must back into truck bays.

The district follows a national standard for using lights and sirens. Many calls do not require the alerts. On calls that do require lights and sirens, crews typically wait to activate them until after they leave the neighborhood.

Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, envisions a fire station with community space for meetings, conferences and school district use. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Members of the fire district plan to meet with community members once it has a design to share. In the meantime, they are meeting with neighbors in close proximity and the Boulevard Neighborhood Association.

In total, the fire district estimates it will cost $15 million for the property purchase, demolition work, remodeling and construction.

“We’re paying cash for building acquisition, and we’re going to finance the work to be done,” Doughty said.

The district has saved for a new downtown station for years and has maintained $7.5 million to $9.5 million in cash for the project.

The districts cannot release a purchase price for the property until the purchase agreement is finalized, Gallagher said. With Buckley Park included, the value was about $10 million. Without Buckley Park, which was appraised at $3.47 million, the remaining property would be worth about $6.5 million, she said.

School administrators would probably move out in December 2022. Big Picture High School will have one more year, then it would move out in the summer, Doughty said.

“For 100 years, this building has ensured the kids of Durango got educated,” he said. “For the next 100 years, we hope that what it stands for is that downtown Durango has a strong sense of public safety.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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