The truck bays in the new Belfast Public Works facility on Crocker Road are much larger and more modern than the bays that the department had been using in its Congress Street site. Credit: Abigail Curtis | BDN

BELFAST, Maine — Six years ago, newly elected Belfast City Councilor Mary Mortier went on a tour of all the departments in the city with former Councilor Nancy Hamilton. What they saw at the Public Works facility shocked them.

There were dirt floors, pigeons living in the eaves and a single disgusting bathroom. The vertical steel support beams were so rusted that Mortier wondered if she could put her foot through them.

“We walked in and were aghast,” she said this week.

The councilors determined to do something about it. And though it took time and a lot of support, they did. Next week, the city will celebrate the grand opening of its new, roughly $7.7 million Public Works facility and solar array, and Mortier couldn’t be happier about it.

“They’ve just been in such a horrible facility for so long. It’s nice to see them smiling,” she said of the 13 full-time and three seasonal workers who staff the department.

The new facility, which will be paid for with a 30-year bond, is located on a 30-acre parcel purchased by the city on Crocker Road. The old buildings on the former Congress Street site will be torn down and the land will be remediated with the help of Brownfields grants. Ultimately, Belfast officials would like that in-town parcel to be used for housing, according to City Manager Joe Slocum.

City employees are currently moving into the department’s new building, which at 27,700 sq. feet is almost twice the size of the old one. With two heated and one unheated truck bays, there is plenty of room to house the 40 pieces of equipment owned by the department, which includes plow trucks, loaders, graders, sidewalk machines and more, said department head Bob Richards. There’s a large indoor vehicle wash bay that has hot water to boot, which is a big improvement and should also keep vehicles in better repair.

“Before, we were washing them outside in the cold weather with a hose after every storm,” he said. “Hopefully, this way they’ll take the time to do a better job.”

Slocum said he believes this will mean the city has to replace its trucks and other pieces of equipment less often.

“These vehicles cost in the neighborhood of $175,000 for a new plow truck. What wears them out isn’t their clutches or transmissions — it’s the rust,” he said. “Now these vehicles should last longer, which is great.”

Next to the garage is the new 9,000 sq. foot sand and salt shed, which features a non-leaking roof, and in the field adjacent to the facility is something special. That’s the site of a five-acre solar array, the third solar array in the city. When it went online last December, the 660-kilowatt project allowed Belfast to offset at least 90 percent of its municipal electric costs.

“A lot of planning went into making this building as close to net zero as possible,” Mortier said. “The solar field is part of it.”

Other features of the new facility include enough space for the crew to repair the vehicles as well as showers, a washing machine, dryer, a big-enough break room, a women’s restroom and fold-up camp cots for long winter storm events that require employees to work for long stretches.

Mortier said she knows the price tag for the whole project is a large one, but with a projected 50-year life span, at least, and low municipal borrowing rates, it made sense. It also was simply time to do something.

“We just couldn’t put it off any longer,” she said, adding that public works does hard, necessary, unglamorous work. “We have a fabulous public works department. And the community of Belfast has finally shown some respect for the work they do.”

The grand opening for the public works building and solar array will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 54 Crocker Road in Belfast.