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Bond Would Help Fix Maine's Dilapidated Armories
10/10/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The $150-million bond package before voters this November includes $14 million for long overdue repairs and maintenance at the state's National Guard Armories. Maine had close to 30 armories at one time, before selling some of them off to local communities. The 15 that remain are still used heavily by the state's guard units and groups that rent them out for all kinds of functions. But as Jay Field reports, many of them are in pretty rough shape.

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One weekend a month, the 262nd Engineer Company's Belfast detachment trains at the local armory. Grass and weeds shoot up through cracks in the asphalt lot where guard members park their civilian vehicles. Part of the red brick complex dates back to the 1920s, when it served as an early transmission station for the Radio Corporation of America.

"When they first report in, they have their unit formations. They have to have an indoor space to do that, especially in the colder months," says Lt. Col. Greg Leimbach.

But that indoor space, Leimbach says, isn't exactly warm and cozy. Leimbach is director of facilities engineers for the Maine Army National Guard. The arching, wooden-beamed ceiling of the Belfast Armory's 8,000-square-foot drill hall has no insulation. The hall has windows with thin panes of glass and chipped, decaying frames.

"This is the old asbestos floor tile," Leimbach says. As long as the tiles stay in place and aren't disturbed, Leimbach says floor doesn't pose a health risk. "But it's not ideal. You can see there are some that are missing, that are broken."

Other state armories have electrical problems, crumbling brick, outdated HVAC systems and old boilers. Some were built in the 1950s. But others, like the one in Belfast, date back even further. Brig. Gen. James Campbell is commissioner of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, and the guard's top-ranking officer.

"Some of them have had some work done," he says. "For example, over the last several years, we've actually sold five state armories and used that money to repair roofs."

The guard estimates it needs to spend a little over $11 million on repairs. By law, upkeep and maintenance is largely the responsibility of the state, which owns the armories. The federal government offers to provide some money as a match to what the state puts up.

But for years, lawmakers in Augusta have passed on funding the armory maintenance. So earlier this year, Campbell and his aides decided to take members of the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on a little tour.

"We took them to some of these facilities and showed them the condition they were in. And they were shocked," Campbell says.

Committee members shared what they saw with other lawmakers, especially those with armories in their districts, like Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, a Sanford Democrat. "Over the past few years, the state really hasn't lived up to its obligations," she says.

But this year, stories of the dilapidated conditions in Maine's armories seem to have finally penetrated all the noise in Augusta. Back in August, lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage signed off on a $150-million bond package, which included $14 million for armory repairs and maintenance.

But there's still a hitch: Voters need to give their approval at the polls in November.

"They're certainly worth preserving and saving," says David Googins, the chairman of the Maine Military Historical Society.

At a time of ongoing financial strain for many voters, Googins says the argument for supporting the armories can't just be about the military role they play.

"Well, in the early days, before we really had civic centers and big community places to gather, the armories were the center of the social hub," he says. "A lot of times, they had school dances and community dances at all of the armories."

Events held at Maine armories have expanded a bit over the years. They now include blood drives, craft shows, job fairs, circuses, beer festivals, the Maine's Strongest Man competition, church socials, gun shows and wedding receptions. The National Guard makes roughly $50,000 a year on rentals - a decent sum, but far too little to take care of all of that deferred maintenance.

Learn more about the bonds on the November ballot.

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