NEWBURYPORT — The City Council approved an appropriation of $75,000 on Monday to pay a portion of the cost for a climate control system upgrade at the Custom House Maritime Museum.
The council voted 8-3 to approve the order, with Councilors Sharif Zeid, Joseph Devlin and Thomas O'Brien opposed.
Ward 4 Councilor Charles Tontar emphasized the project's importance in preserving many of the Custom House's historical items that are in danger of being damaged during harsh seasonal weather conditions.
The project, Tontar said, would have a "minimal effect" on the Custom House's appearance and keep the building's historic character intact. As a condition of the ordinance, the Custom House is required to place a preservation restriction on the building's exterior.
"There are some extremely valuable historical artifacts stored there that are in danger of being lost because of the humidity," Tontar said, adding that the system upgrade would also allow the building to host temporary displays from other museums.
The project would be funded by Community Preservation Act revenues for fiscal 2020, and was one of several the council held off on voting on last month.
Custom House board Chair Doug Muir said the money would cover slightly more than 10% of the project's total cost, which will likely be close to $800,000 based on the most recent estimates.
Still, Muir said the building's owner, the Newburyport Maritime Society, has not reached the project's feasibility phase and can't be certain the total cost will not be even higher.
Muir said donors and other supporters would be unlikely to give the organization money for the project if they saw a lack of support from the city.
"There is a possibility that we won't have enough money to do this, but I can assure you, if the city doesn't support it, we won't have any money," Muir said. "If the city doesn't support it, we won't get any foundation grants, and we won't get any significant donor contributions. People expect that."
Last year, some councilors expressed disapproval with the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority's decision to sell the Custom House to the Maritime Society for $100 rather than turn it over to the city.
Tontar called the clash that ensued between the Redevelopment Authority and some city councilors "water under the bridge" and argued the importance of protecting the museum as one of Newburyport's "key historic structures."
But Zeid rose in opposition to the order, saying the city has already poured enough money into the Custom House over the years.
"Selling a building that's easily worth over a million dollars — in fact, we've put in several hundred thousand dollars — is being generous and it seems we keep glossing over that," Zeid said. "Next year, we'll have the same discussion, implying that the residents haven't been generous. They've been more than generous."
Devlin expressed a similar sentiment, implying that after acquiring the museum last year, the Maritime Society should be able to take care of the Custom House on its own.
"The reasoning behind giving them the property was that the organization was going to be taking care of it itself, so I think we've been generous enough," Devlin said.
In other business, the council unanimously approved funding for the following projects based on Community Preservation Committee recommendations:
¢ $110,903 to Newburyport Public Schools for the continuation of Phase 3 of the Newburyport High School exterior woodwork restoration project;
¢ $84,000 for Phase 4 of the Newburyport High School exterior woodwork restoration project;
¢ $59,430 to the Historic Society of Old Newbury to replace the original wiring at the Cushing House and install a new electrical system;
¢ Bonding the continued renovation of the track and field facility at Bradley Fuller Athletic Field in the amount of $694,820 on the condition that the annual debt service does not exceed $55,000.
Staff writer Jack Shea covers Newburyport City Hall. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-961-3154. Follow him on Twitter @iamjackshea.