January 2, 2013

Kennebec Tales: Projects ground us in 2013

By Maureen Milliken

2013. Wow. If you're of a certain age, you're no doubt saying, "Where the hell's my jetpack?"

There are a lot of things that 30 or 40 years ago we thought would happen by the so-far-away exotic year of 2013 that just haven't happened.

That said, it's comforting to know there are some solid things -- construction projects costing millions -- we know for sure will happen in central Maine in 2013.

The new $312 million MaineGeneral Medical Center is scheduled to open Dec. 7 in Augusta. The regional hospital consolidates many of the functions of MaineGeneral's Augusta and Waterville hospitals. Augusta's, on East Chestnut Street, will close and the buildings are already under contract to be sold. Waterville's Seton campus will close, but the Thayer campus will stay open as an outpatient care hospital, with renovations beginning in 2014.

The hospital opening won't be the end of it for north Augusta residents, though. Extensive work to exit 113 of Interstate 95 that includes Old Belgrade Road, Middle Road, Bog Road and Civic Center Drive is expected to extend into 2014.

A little farther north, a much smaller but no less anticipated project -- Waterville's $3.4 million Police Department headquarters -- is scheduled to open on Colby Circle after a wild ride that included multiple possible locations and prices.

For a while there, it was impossible to keep track of the new station's location without a GPS tracker. There were a variety of possible sites, including the Morning Sentinel's building, which is across Front Street from City Hall and the department's current location. Head of Falls was approved as the site in January and again in June. But then in July, after public outcry about using the riverfront location for the station and strong opposition from some city councilors, Colby Circle was chosen as the final site.

They've already broken ground, so they can't change their minds this time.

Across the river, Winslow was having its own Police Department issues. Police temporarily moved out of the station in July and into the fire station while an addition was built.

Construction issues, delays and cost overruns slowed down the project, which now will cost $734,000 -- $100,000 more than originally planned. The good news for Winslow police, the firemen and townspeople is that the addition has been on track since October is expected to be done later this month.

Farther west, a $65 million renovation of Mt. Blue High School in Farmington is expected to be finished in September. A new two-story classroom wing that includes a new gymnasium already opened last September. Once done, the building will house not only the high school and Foster Career and Technical School, but also Franklin County Community College.

In Augusta, construction of a $50 million courthouse behind the historic granite Kenebec County Courthouse on the corner of State and Winthrop streets continues. Once completed, the four-story building will consolidate some court functions, including Augusta District Court, which is farther south on State Street.

In a burst of respect for its historic buildings -- something Augusta has been short of lately -- the old courthouse on State Street, built in 1830, will stay right where it is. That's good news for people still getting used to the way that intersection looks without the YMCA, which was allowed to decay and fester way before it was finally torn down.

But we're not here to talk about the past. The new courthouse won't open in 2013. Or 2014. It's slated to open in spring of 2015.

The good news for 2013 is that until the building starts going up, you can get a load of one of the best views in Augusta -- one that probably hasn't been seen in decades and won't be seen again once the courthouse is built. Stand at the corner of Winthrop and State on the lawn of Lithgow library and look southeast. Without the Crisis & Counseling Centers and Spiritualist Church buildings, torn down for the courthouse project, the panorama, including Memorial Bridge, is breathtaking.

Who thought, back in 1973 or 1983 when we talked about 2013, we'd be talking about old-fashioned brick-and-mortar projects instead of putting down mortgages on space-age condos on the moon? Or even Mars?

Yet here we are. Hospitals, police stations, high schools, courthouses -- the stuff that keeps us moving and knits us together as a community. Everything's brighter, bigger and higher-tech than what it was decades ago. A little shinier, more expensive, a little more complicated. But we're still us.

It's kind of a relief, but I'm still hoping for that jetpack someday.

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. She grew up in Augusta. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.

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