In cash strapped Houlton, $80,000 restrooms seem pricey target for vandals

by Jen Lynds

I think that everyone who lives in Houlton can remember the tangled mess of trees, burdocks and trash that surrounded the Meduxnekeag River before hardworking volunteers fashioned it into Riverfront Park.

The Riverfront Committee had long had a goal of erecting a footbridge in the downtown, and they did that in 2005, raising $1 million to put Gateway Crossing from the North Street Bridge across the Meduxnekeag River. Soon after, they organized cleanup days to clear out the area beneath the bridge and along the waterfront to create a lighted fitness trail and park. They’ve now added picnic tables, a kiosk and storyboards that depict the history of the town and other facts about the community.

But when Bob Anderson, the chair of the Riverfront Committee, approached the Town Council on July 22 to talk about future plans for the park, a proposal to build restrooms down there immediately caught their attention.

Anderson said that the committee wants to build public restrooms down there, as there aren’t any in the area for shoppers or visitors. He said the group believes they will cost $80,000 to construct, which does not include maintenance costs. The facilities would only be open for half the year, as the bridge and park are closed in the winter.

Anderson said that the restrooms would be as “vandal proof as possible,” modeled after rest areas operated by the state and monitored by security cameras. There had been “very little vandalism” in the park, he said, but at the same time acknowledged that the committee also was looking to spend $1,200 to purchase new picnic tables to replace ones targeted by vandals.

Councilor John White was blunt when he told Anderson that the town simply didn’t have the money to support such a project. Taxes in Houlton just increased, and White noted that the town is already spending money to finance restrooms at the Tourist Information Center, which were turning out to be far more expensive than they were initially told they would be.

Chairman Paul Cleary agreed. He told Anderson that the council might consider the idea if the committee raised the money to maintain the restrooms themselves.

At the same time, councilors also said they were worried that the facility would be targeted by vandals, leaving the town on the hook for paying the repair bills.

Anderson said that he did not feel the town should let vandals deter them from doing things to better the community.

I think that everyone enjoys Riverfront Park and what it has added to the community. People enjoy walking across Gateway Crossing, it looks impressive and it has become an excellent venue for a fireworks show during the Midnight Madness celebration. All of the credit should go to the Riverfront Committee and the dedicated volunteers who put time and energy into raising the money to make that happen.

At the same time, one has to wonder if $80,000 restrooms are really necessary for a park that is only open half the year. Wouldn’t a set of portable toilets be a more logical and cost effective choice?

As Anderson pointed out, the committee intends to make the proposed restrooms “as vandal proof as possible,” and told councilors that the park isn’t targeted by vandals that often.

But if that is true, why does the committee need to buy more picnic tables to replace ones destroyed by vandals?

Vandalism is an issue in the community, especially when new structures are built. In 2004, while the footbridge was still under construction, vandals sprayed graffiti on several portions of the cement base that holds the bridge. In 2007, three people were charged by police after destroying several storyboards in the park and smashing a light pole.

Vandals have also spray painted a bronze moose statue that was placed in the park in 2009. The 17,000 pound bronze statue once sat in Market Square, but vandals struck in April of 2004, and less than a month after it was moved there, unknown individuals somehow tipped it over, breaking the antler off and causing $11,000 in damage to the $66,000 statue.

In 2001, area veterans were shocked and angered when less than 24 hours after a new World War II memorial was erected at Monument Park in downtown Houlton, vandals chipped it with a rock.

In 2008, after repeated vandalism at the town’s amphitheater, frustrated parks and recreation department employees finally painted its pillars with graffiti-proof coating to deter further incidents.

So in this town, it seems, you’d have to go to great lengths to make something as “vandal proof as possible.”

And it seems that the taxpayers have spent a lot of money cleaning up after vandals over the years.

Perhaps its best to just put a few portable toilets in Riverfront Park for the summer, and if they are targeted by vandals, all that the town will have to do is haul the damaged item, and all of its contents, away.

Note: Councilors  and the Riverfront Committee will talk more about the project later this month