SALEM — One of the oldest city halls in the country is getting a big tech upgrade.
This summer, the city's information technology department will put about $50,000 of work into Salem City Hall to provide audio access to the City Council chambers, improve the ability for meetings to have multimedia presentations, and set up an overflow area for people in the building to still watch the meeting from if the council chambers fill up past capacity.
The project will bring some modern infrastructure to a series of rooms that are nearly 200 years old. It will be a unique challenge, according to Matt Killen, the city's director of information technology.
"It's a historic building with great character," Killen said. "The architecture up there is fabulous, but it's also difficult if you're attending a public meeting to see what's being presented or hear what's being talked about."
History losing touch with technology
City Hall was built between 1836 and 1837. It was funded entirely through surplus U.S. Treasury revenue that was doled out to the states at the time, according to "Architecture in Salem," a book on city architecture first written in 1983.
The building was doubled in size in 1876 and then expanded again in 1978 and 1979. Today, City Hall is one of the oldest still-active government buildings across the country — the oldest is New York City Hall (which was built between 1803 and 1812).
The council chambers has received various upgrades over the years. Today, three cameras hang far above the meeting area to broadcast live video to Salem Access Television, in part through a console tower in a side anteroom. Each councilor's seat has a microphone in front of it, and a recent upgrade saw a wireless network access point mounted to the bottom of one of SATV's cameras.
But other than that, the room still feels and looks like a bygone era. There are issues with the acoustics — sounds often fill the room from the outside — the roar of car engines in the street, a jubilant crowd at the bar next door at Opus — or a cacophony of noise generated during a heated council meeting.
"If you're sitting there and it's a hot-button issue, and there are 60 or 70 in the room or more, I'm not sure what that would sound like," Killen said. "If you're watching from home, I can only imagine how bad it is. SATV does a great job with what they can, but the room doesn't lend itself to that."
Then, during the summer, things get even worse. A pair of air conditioners run in two of the room's four corners. That effectively cuts out any hope some in the chambers have of hearing a meeting taking place just a few feet in front of them.
"Especially in the summer when the ACs are on, it's hard to hear what's going on," said Ilene Simons, Salem's city clerk and an official who sits just feet away from those speaking during the meetings. "When we started this, just me and (SATV director Patrick Kennedy), we went to the Council the first time with just a PA speaker and something for $1,500."
But a speaker just wasn't going to cut it.
"From their concerns out of that initial meeting, it sounded like they wanted a lot more," Simons said. "The public was looking for more, and they all deserve more."
Project solves problems, creates others
Two years of work and surveys have led officials to the $50,000 project being discussed today. It will be funded by left-over IT-appropriated money from a past year (surplus dollars, fittingly, just like what built the building in the first place).
To start the project, speakers will be installed in each corner of the room, according to Simons.
That, of course, creates more problems — speakers will be facing the microphones the councilors talk into, creating feedback once the microphone signals start carrying over and looping through the speakers.
As such, "we're changing the microphones from always being on to being push-to-talk," Simons said.
Then, there's video. Today, presentations are beamed via a projector onto a free-standing screen in the room, and SATV will focus on that screen to broadcast the presentation back on TV. Basically, it's a picture of a picture — leaving viewers at home with a hit in video quality.
Through the upgrade, a proper projection screen will be installed behind the seat of the City Council president at the head of the room, Killen said. That will further lead to a real presentation system in the Chambers that can easily be transmitted on TV.
Lastly, officials are looking to set up an overflow room — a second place people can go when the Chambers runs out of space. That room, if it comes together, will provide video and audio from the meeting. The potential for that part of the project will be discussed at a City Council committee meeting on Wednesday, June 26.
So that's what the officials want to do. Now, they must address one more hurdle: figuring out how to do it.
"There's a tray ceiling above us," Killen said, pointing to the intricate design capping the Chambers. "Above this, in the attic basically, is just a directly open space. There aren't a lot of what you'd see (in other buildings) — modern supports, or the ability to walk across without putting your foot through the ceiling."
With the Chambers extending from one side of the room to the other, the ability to run wires for the upgrades are basically nil, according to Killen. After all, the original architects of the building couldn't have possibly imagined the need for data cables to connect entire systems that wouldn't exist for another century and a half.
"It's just a really hard environment to work in," Killen said. "There are no conduits in the walls for cables, no chases down the side of the wall ... to run a new cable."
The project, in the end, involves "having to drill holes, and do it carefully without cracking plaster, and putting speakers in in a way that isn't intrusive," Killen said. "We're really trying to preserve the room but add the technology."
Further details on the project, including the company at this point selected to do the work, weren't available Wednesday afternoon. The meeting discussing the project, a "Government Services" committee meeting, will run in the Chambers on Wednesday, June 26 at 6 p.m.