By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — The Department of Public Works will be moving its administrative offices to 39 South Hunt Road starting today, marking the beginning of the DPW’s gradual move out of the downtown area that officials hope will be complete by the end of the year.
Laurie Pierce, the DPW’s administrative assistant, said the department’s old office at 9 School St. would be staffed today during the move to help with customer service-related issues. The new office will be opened in a limited capacity starting tomorrow and should be up and running at normal capacity starting Monday, she said.
Pierce added that the DPW’s existing phone number will remain the same, but it will be taken out of service briefly tomorrow while its being switched from the old office to the new one. Residents seeking permits should also wait until Monday, she said.
The DPW’s new offices will consolidate the department’s administrative functions into a single location, housing the water, sewer, highway and trees, parks and cemeteries (TPC) divisions.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he expects the move to go off without a hitch, given that the week after New Years is typically slow and there are currently no snowstorms in the forecast to cause a disruption.
The relocation of the DPW’s administrative offices is the most visible sign of progress on the $5.9 million relocation project since it was approved this past July. After the City Council voted 8-1 to approve the proposal, the city worked to acquire the property and prepare the existing building on the site for the DPW’s impending move.
With the offices all moved in, the next step for city officials will be to build a new garage on the property to house the DPW’s vehicles and equipment.
Rob Desmarais, director of public works, said he expects the project will be put out to bid by late spring and construction of the new garage should begin by the summer. His hope is that the garage will be completed by the winter and that everything should be done by the end of the year.
Once the DPW’s vehicle and equipment have been moved to the new garage, the city will finally be able to demolish the old garage and clear up the Lower Millyard for redevelopment, which has been a priority for city officials for years.
Desmarais estimated that the old garage could be demolished by the spring of 2014, and Kezer said he has already submitted a demolition permit for the building.
Kezer said he expects the permit to go through without any issues, but noted that there is an outside possibility that the Historical Commission could delay the demolition.
“The one possible hang-up is they can delay it up to 18 months if they designate it as a historically significant facility,” Kezer said. “They have that ability, but whether they do or not, I don’t know.”
Once the old garage is demolished, Kezer said the city would realign Water Street in order to create room for two new parcels of land on the Back River side of the area while leaving room for the new Heritage Park across the street, which will also include a new dock and boat ramp.
Kezer is seeking state grant funds to help finance those projects, and said the city would immediately work to get the necessary permitting work done once the funds were available.
“If we secure the funding, that’ll give us the green light to go ahead, because it costs money to permit,” Kezer said. “So you want to make sure you have the money in hand to do it.”
Similarly, Dan Healey, who owns Carriage Mills in the Lower Millyard, is planning an expansion of his property that will provide what Kezer called “class A” office space for prospective businesses, similar to what is available in the Upper Millyard.
“It will be brick buildings that are going to look really nice,” Kezer said. “If you were to go down there and see those green metal buildings, those are all going to disappear and new office space is going to come up.”
According to Kezer, Healey has already provided preliminary plans to community economic and development director Joe Fahey’s office.
“Typically what we try to do with projects like that is bring them into that office so they can review them and red flag any issues, concerns or requirements that may come up that the developer may not know,” Kezer said. “So when they submit a formal plan to the Planning Board, any major issues are already worked out.”
Rick Bartley, owner of Bartley Machine, is planning on selling his 8 1/2 acre property in the Lower Millyard to a developer in order to further improve the area.
Kezer said he knows Bartley has been in discussion with a number of developers but couldn’t say for sure if he was close to reaching a deal with any of them. A voicemail was left at Bartley Machine seeking comment but was not returned by press time.
Even though he admitted that the Lower Millyard isn’t going to turn into a paradise overnight once the old DPW garage is demolished, Kezer expressed optimism that major strides toward the redevelopment of the Lower Millyard had been made in the past year and that it wouldn’t be much longer before the community started reaping the benefits.
“The fact that we are now getting the DPW out of that area increases the value of all that property down there,” Kezer said. “Increasing property values is something we’ve all been talking about recently with the whole classification issue, and this is the way you do it. With that type of development, it increases the overall value of our community.”