Officials hope lower price will push purchase of Sacred Heart Church site

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By Hiroko Sato

MediaNews

GROTON — Five months after suspending talks with the Archdiocese of Boston, town officials are leaning more strongly toward the acquisition of the former Sacred Heart Church to build a new fire station there.

And, this time, they are hoping the new $325,000 price tag on the property — compared to the previous offer of $450,000 — would help convince the voters to purchase the site at fall Town Meeting.

Town Manager Mark Haddad said last Friday that the town had reached an agreement with the archdiocese to purchase the former Sacred Heart Church property on Main Street for $325,000. The new agreement comes after selectmen’s recent announcement that the Groton Electric Light Department land on Station Avenue is not suitable for a new Central Fire Station. Selectmen will ask for funding for the church acquisition at the fall Town Meeting on Oct. 17, Haddad said.

According to GELD Manager Kevin Kelly, the engineers working on the agency’s new headquarters and garage construction project on Station Avenue have investigated the feasibility of adding a fire station at the site from all possible angles. Because the street is surrounded by wetlands and the GELD site contains different elevations, it would be cost-inhibiting to build both the GELD facility and the fire station while satisfying environmental restrictions and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kelly said. It would cost $1 million for the GELD facility, Haddad said.

Selectmen first proposed purchasing the church in February at a a cost of $475,000. Faced with public criticism that they had rushed their decision, selectmen then appointed a study committee to review all possible sites for the project. In the meantime, the archdiocese offered to lower the sale price to $450,000.

The study committee provided pros and cons for the church and the GELD land while concluding that refitting the third potential site, the former Prescott School on Main Street, would be too costly. Some residents continued to push for the town-owned GELD site by the Nashua River Rail Trail, saying that would save the town money. Church abutters also claimed a new fire station would negatively impact the neighborhood.

“I am hoping that voters will understand the efforts that everybody has gone through,” Selectmen Chairman Anna Eliot said Friday. “We have explored the options of Station Avenue very thoroughly and followed through with voters’ concerns” over the church acquisition, she said.

“I am very excited to think that we may now be able to make plans to build a new fire station,” she said.

The archdiocese will donate the Sacred Heart building to The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, based in Merrimack, N.H. The new agreement stipulates that the college will move the century-old structure to its future campus on Old Ayer Road by Aug. 15. If that does not happen, the town and the archdiocese would be responsible for tearing down the building, which could cost about $60,000, Haddad said. The town would pay 75 percent of the cost with the archdiocese picking up the rest. Under the previous sale agreement, the town would only have paid 10 percent of the demolition cost.

Thomas More President William Fahey said Friday that the college should be able to move the building to reuse it as a student chapel by August if the fundraising goes smoothly.

“The relocation of the church to the future campus is driven by the success of fundraising,” Fahey said.

The rough estimate for the building moving cost, based on last year’s analysis, is between $150,000 and $175,000, without including the cost of temporarily moving utility wires and additional work. Engineers are conducting a new review to see if the building would withstand the relocation and how much it would really cost, Fahey said.

While selectmen have not take a vote on the church acquisition, the board is in favor of it, Eliot said.

Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager said he had not heard about the new price tag on the church until he was contacted on Friday and could not comment.