City ready to take a second look at Winter Island

Ken Yuszkus/Staff photoThe hangar on Winter Island in Salem was once part of the U.S. Coast Guard station there. It is used today by the harbormaster and the Parks and Recreation Department for storage and boat repair.

SALEM — A decade has passed since city leaders took a hard look at the old U.S. Coast Guard property on Winter Island. Not much has happened since.

The site still features a crumbling, boarded-up barracks, dating to 1934, and a hangar, once used for seaplanes, that needs work but is still used by the city for boat repair and storage.

A comprehensive study in 2007 determined the barracks could be saved with a roughly $1 million investment. But no funding was ever found.

Now, city officials want to take another look at the site.

“We’re looking to do an update to the building assessment, the structural assessment of the building, and based on that putting out a request for interest basically to see what people or organizations might be interested in seeing on those locations,” said Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll. “The condition of the hangar is probably better than the barracks building, but the preference would be to maintain the structures if possible.”

Harbormaster Bill McHugh uses the hangar year-round for storage and repair work. 

“There’s boats in there right now that we work on, and the Parks Department uses it,” McHugh said. “It’s used for tools, storage. Parks and Rec uses the majority of it as well for storage of equipment, snow plows, leaf vacuums.”

The roof was replaced about a decade ago, and “in most places” it’s sound, he said. There are some issues where the hangar connects with attached structures, but those are relatively minor.

“You couldn’t ask for a better work area or storage for boats and equipment. It stays dry,” McHugh said. “It’s essential for us to have a shop of that size that you can pull boats in and put them into the water quickly.”

The barracks has not fared as well. Photos printed in the 2007 report show walls that have deteriorated to a skeletal wood frame, and staircases that have completely given way. A massive hole in the roof runs more than half the width of the building, allowing rain and snow to collect inside. “In general, the building is highly salvageable, much more than expected given its treatment over the years,” the 2007 report concluded, adding that “the structure is sound.”

But many of the derelict conditions remain.

“The roof is caved-in in areas,” McHugh said, and several stair supports are rotted out. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking through there.”

Looking for ideas

Pangallo said the city plans to launch a “request for interest,” or RFI for short, seeking ideas that could help frame a future request for proposals.

“It wouldn’t be, ‘Give us your dream for Winter Island,’” Pangallo said. “It’s, ‘Hey, I have an actual concept and we have the ability to carry it out.’”

Winter Island remains a popular site for campers in the summer, and last year the Creative Collective, an arts-oriented business organization, worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to host pop-up drive-in movies there, with films projected onto the side of the hangar.

John Andrews, who is Creative Collective’s executive director, said three more events are planned for June, July and August.

“In a perfect world, if money wasn’t an object, that whole property could be just so much more,” Andrews said. “The hangar itself could be an amazing performance venue, concert venue, so many things.”

The barracks, he said, might be too far gone to rehabilitate, “but if money was no object, it could be such an incredible performing space, theater space, or even just an audio-video tent or area that could work with the hangar itself.”

Even without money, he said, more could be done to tie the site to the nearby Salem Willows amusement park.

“We use that for parking for the drive-in,” Andrews said. “There’s definitely some walkable, bikeable tours. If there was programming happening at Winter Island, you could go to the Willows, grab some food or a shuttle.”

For the time being, however, money is a priority. 

“We need to identify the funding source before the update to the building report,” Pangallo said.

Kathleen Winn, deputy director of the city’s planning department, said, “We could get the RFI out this year. Whether or not we could identify somebody, identify the funds and start work, that could be a multi-year project.”

What all seem to agree on is that the island has lots of potential.

“It’s a gorgeous property, a gorgeous space,” Andrews said. “Seeing some other organizations use it has been great, but it has definitely been more of an asset to the city.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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