ELLSWORTH — Whatever the future has in store for the neglected, crumbling old jail building on State Street, if it isn’t torn down the structure will need to be used as either a historical exhibit or museum, according to a Jan. 19 vote of the Hancock County Commissioners.
In 1998, the board of commissioners granted the Ellsworth Historical Society a quitclaim deed with the condition that the building be used as the premises for the Historical Society and “keep, use and maintain the premises in a good and reasonable condition…; otherwise the premises and land shall revert to the grantor.”
The issue of alternate use of the circa 1886 structure has arisen because Heart of Ellsworth and other interested parties are making an effort to find grant money to renovate the building. Alternate uses for the building, including as office and gallery space, were discussed at a Nov. 9 community-wide meeting.
However, the commissioners voted unanimously at their board meeting last week to inform the society that there would be no amendment to the deed that would remove a historical use provision.
Commissioner Bill Clark researched past discussions of the board dating back to the 1970s with regard to the county’s donation of the building to the Historical Society. The intent of former boards of commissioners was to keep a historical presence, Clark said.
“To me, it’s kind of a complicated problem,” said Chairman John Wombacher. “There’s no great answer to it. I agree with you. The intent of deeding it to the Historical Society was that it remain that way.”
“Our hope is that it will be a community building,” said former Ellsworth Historical Society President Terri Cormier.
“You keep saying that, Terri, but gentlemen if that means there are going to be several entities in there and running that, isn’t that contrary to what we really want?” Clark asked.
“I personally think there could still be some creative thinking,” Wombacher said.
“I’m not ready to say ‘hand it over’ because I know what that will cost,” said Commissioner Paul Paradis.
“The Historical Society has had 40 years to manage that building,” said Clark. “If you look at it today, it’s had 40 more years of deterioration.”
The building, a few years ago, was fitted with nets to catch the bricks that are falling off the structure in an attempt to avoid injury to county employees who park in the surrounding lot as well as passers-by.
There have been more bricks falling from the building recently.
Clark asked if the Historical Society had a plan for dealing with the bricks.
“Probably we’ll call the insurance company to have them help us get it looked at,” Cormier said.
“I never envisioned the net to be a way to control all the bricks that fall out of it,” Clark said. “I’m just very disturbed. That is significant damage, at least in my mind. If that’s indicative of what’s going to happen with that building in the near future, I would think the society would be very concerned about it.”
“Oh we are, naturally,” Cormier replied.
Heart of Ellsworth Executive Director Cara Romano, who was in the meeting, said she wants to meet with the board and discuss costs and plans for the structure created by architect Carla Haskell, who owns the Design Group Collaborative. There is no word yet on when that meeting would occur.
There’s been a fair amount of back and forth over the building, including what had looked like the society’s impending relinquishing of the property back to the county.
In September, Ellsworth Historical Society President Bill Fogle sent Hancock County a letter stating that the society could not care for the building.
“With sincere regret, the Ellsworth Historical Society is no longer able to maintain the old Hancock County sheriff’s home and jail to the standards set forth in our deed of 1998 — an era when the Society enjoyed a more robust membership and assistance from the different organizations, schools, churches and clubs within the city.”