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Bristol to look at new West Street option for firehouse

BRISTOL — The Bristol Fire Department may have a new, viable location on which to build its new firehouse, thanks to a land deal inked by a local businessman with a history of partnering with the town.
Kevin Harper told the Bristol selectboard Monday evening that he and business partner David Blittersdorf had just purchased two adjacent parcels on the south side of West Street, directly across from the West Street site currently under consideration for a new firehouse.
“We’d be interested if the town and fire department were interested in siting a facility on these lots,” Harper told the selectboard.
The land, formerly owned by the Nelson family, totals nine acres, but only about four are suitable for structures, as the land slopes sharply down toward the New Haven River. Harper said he wants to develop the land.
The fire department has discussed the need for a new facility for decades, and the town has actively worked on proposals for the last several years. Last summer, a firehouse siting committee vetted nearly three dozen potential sites for a new firehouse, and ultimately selected a parcel on the north side of West Street, which straddles land owned by the Bristol Recreation Club and the Shepard family.
The town is negotiating with the recreation club. Once that process is complete, the town must ink a deal with the Shepards.
But the town could look into the property that Harper purchased, which is directly across the street from the Recreation Club and Shepard property. The Harper site was also studied by the firehouse siting committee, which ranked it the third best, after the recreation club site and the existing firehouse location on North Street.
Harper suggested to the selectboard that he would consider financing the firehouse and then leasing the facility to the town. This would save the town from asking voters to pass a multi-million-dollar bond, a tall order given the recent history of bond votes in the area.
Leasing rather than building a firehouse may be attractive to town voters, who by a 2 to 1 margin in 2013 rejected a bond to expand the North Street firehouse. Voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union this past November by an even larger margin rejected a proposed $33 million bond to renovate Mount Abraham Union High School.
A new high school renovation bond is likely to come before voters in the next year, so building a firehouse through means other than a bond may be more palatable to Bristol voters.
While it is unusual for a private citizen to finance a public building and lease it to a municipality, there is precedent in Bristol — just ask Harper.
Three years ago, Harper’s Bristol Works business campus outfitted a new station for the Bristol Police Department. In 2013 — the same day voters rejected the firehouse bond — residents approved a 10-year lease for the police department.
“I won’t say that it’s commonplace for a developer to build a community facility and police station on a lease basis,” Harper said. “But it’s an inexpensive way for a town to get into a building quickly.”
The selectboard on Monday acknowledged that getting a new firehouse built as soon as possible is a top priority. Firefighters say the current facility, which was built in 1897, does not meet their needs. The first floor of the structure cannot support the weight of vehicles, which must be parked in several garages around town. The second floor can’t support the weight of more than a few people, so the department meets at the Bristol American Legion post. The septic system is failing and likely needs to be replaced.
Harper said financing a new firehouse and leasing it to the town may be the fastest way to get the fire department back on its feet.
“In the private sector, it’s easier to get things done,” Harper said.
Harper said he would be open to an arrangement under which the town would lease a firehouse with the option to eventually purchase the building.
“It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility … to contemplate an option to buy or lease the land, with the right to purchase at any time,” Harper told the selectboard.
Such a large deal between a public and private entity for an essential service requires a lot of trust between the parties. Should Harper finance the firehouse only to have Bristol not renew the lease after its initial term, Harper would be in a difficult position, as there is little market demand for pre-owned firehouses.
“I would hope that trust would be built upon the town’s experience working together on past projects,” Harper said. “I’ve been operating in this community since 1980-something.”
Harper pointed to the success of Autumn Harp, the cosmetics manufacturing business he formed in Ripton in 1977 and moved to Bristol in 1982. At its peak, Autumn Harp employed 200 people and was the largest private employer in Bristol. In 2009, the company, under different ownership, moved its operations to Essex.
But Harper didn’t want to abandon Bristol, so in 2011 he and a business partner formed Bristol Works, a manufacturing and business park on the site of the former Autumn Harp at Munsill Avenue and Pine Street. The facility is now full, with a dozen tenants, but Harper said it was a significant risk to take on.
“The last three years we’ve been refitting buildings, with millions of dollars of debt and the risk that tenants will still be there at the end of the lease,” Harper said. “We’ll eventually see a payment on that investment.”
Harper said he will talk further with the selectboard and planning commission to see if the town wants to pursue a partnership to build a new firehouse. Even if the town chooses to stick with the recreation club site, Harper said he is eager to work with the town to develop the land he just purchased, as well as an adjacent property owned by the town.
“This is a really exciting time for the community to exercise the development opportunity we’ve been dreaming about,” Harper said. “We just went through the multi-year process of developing a new town plan, and now it’s time to execute it.”

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