PORTSMOUTH — At one point the city turned its back on the recreation center that anchored historic Port Norfolk. And now it’s time to pay a heavy price for its neglect of the nearly 100-year-old building.
At a meeting of Portsmouth City Council On Tuesday the town engineer outlined a long list of repairs the Port Norfolk Leisure Center needs after years of disuse and neglected maintenance. Faced with a price tag as high as $2.35 million, at least one member of council wants to know why the city abandoned the two-story brick building that was once a centerpiece of Port Norfolk.
” How did we get here ? At what point did the city decide that it was not going to continue with the maintenance of this building or did it have other plans to let it deteriorate and then tear it down? Councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke asked the city engineer.
James Wright, the engineer, had no answers, but said he could find out.
John Lifsey, vice-chairman of the Port Norfolk Civic League, said on Wednesday the town had spent years “kicking down the street to get another guy to do it”. He said it was not the current board’s fault, but needed to be addressed.
The building closed in 2017, but there were 4,000 to 5,000 people there a year before, Wright told the council. As of 2019, the building is mainly used as a polling station for elections.
Wright offered two repair estimates, depending on the council’s vision for the building.
For about $2.35 million, Wright said the building could become a functional recreation center again. For $650,000, it could be repaired enough to be usable for voting, but that wouldn’t include the roof or exterior repairs, which Wright had budgeted at just $750,000. If the city chooses to make the major repairs, the structure would be 15 to 25 years old before needing major work.
The recreation center’s roof is at the end of its life and showing moisture and leaks, Wright said. Whether a new roof is put on, some improvements will need to be made to keep the building up to code, he said. The exterior also needs other repairs, such as replacing rotten window sills and repairing brick cladding, to prevent further water damage.
The floors are undulating and its frame should be reinforced, according to Wright’s presentation. But he said the foundation is OK and the building is solid.
Also, the elevator is too narrow to be ADA compliant. There are several stained, broken and missing ceiling tiles. The bathrooms need to be renovated and the building needs painting as well as a security system. One corner has drainage issues. The water heater needs to be repaired. And the air conditioning system is also at the end of its life.
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Councilor Paul Battle asked Wright if it would be cheaper to replace the building. Wright wasn’t sure.
Councilman Mark Whitaker had another idea. He asked Wright about the possibility of privatization. Wright said this has already been discussed at the staff level.
Whitaker said he hoped the council would consider “privatizing it, putting it on the tax rolls and converting it to another use.”
Erika Nestler, president of the civic league, said Wednesday that she was glad the city heard the community’s concerns. She appreciates him looking into the building and is “cautiously optimistic” about his future.
Lifsey said he was not in favor of Whitaker’s proposal, but he would be okay if the city sold the building with reservations to ensure the historic exterior is preserved.
“We want to see it used,” he said. “It’s in no one’s interest for it to sit there empty.”
Noble Brigham, firstname.lastname@example.org