The nonprofit Collingswood Fire Company had hoped to revive its historic home as a microbrewery, but with that dream dashed by environmental concerns, it’s now hoping simply to hold onto the property.
By Matt Skoufalos | December 12, 2022
In the fall of 2021, while the Collingswood municipal government readied its new public safety building, a shared space for the borough police and fire departments, the Collingswood Fire Company contemplated the fortunes of its historic home.
Constructed in 1895, the structure, which comprises four lots — 16, 18, 20, and 24 West Collings Avenue — had served as the headquarters of the local fire service for more than a century and a quarter of use. But with the opening of the new public safety building, its future was in doubt.
Although the Collingswood Fire Department had previously operated out of the 127-year-old building, the property itself is owned by the Collingswood Fire Company, a nonprofit entity the ranks of which include former borough volunteer firefighters.
Company members had hoped that, with the fire department operating out of its new, modern building, the old fire house would live on in some form that would give it a new purpose. In September 2021, they brokered a deal that would have redeveloped the property as a microbrewery.
However, that plan never came to pass. In April 2022, a due diligence review from GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. identified “gasoline-related contamination in soil and groundwater” at the site, which it said “had historically operated as a service station and gasoline fueling facility from at least 1922 until approximately 1981.”
GZA recommended that a groundwater investigation of the site be conducted “to determine if an offsite source is impacting the property and to delineate the groundwater contamination onsite.” The estimated cost of that project could approach $60,000 or more.
That environmental report effectively torpedoed the microbrewery deal, which would have revived the property for active commercial use. The fire company is workshopping plans to partner with another nonprofit entity to house historic firefighting apparatus onsite, but no deal has yet been struck to do so.
In the meantime, however, the group faces a more pressing issue: a roughly $53,000 bill for unpaid taxes on the property dating back to 2021, when the Collingswood Fire Department left for the new public safety building. Fire company executives say they plan to appeal the bill, but if they don’t win their case, the Collingswood tax sale is slated for December 15.
Despite discussions about selling the property to a private party, the fire company never officially appealed for a change of use, and its board says the group still meets there regularly. Its argument is that since the company is a 501c3 entity, it remains exempt from taxation.
In its current condition, and given the unknown extent of the environmental contamination onsite, the property isn’t salable. Without additional investment to explore the costs of clean-up, it might not be viable to a commercial buyer anyway.
Fire company executives still hope to sell the building to a new owner who could revive it in some fashion, and believe they can do so without forfeiting their tax-exempt status under New Jersey law, provided that the net proceeds of the sale are used for charitable purposes.
The company had previously expressed its intention to donate any funds from the sale of the building to charities supporting fallen firefighters, burn victims, pediatric cancer patients, and even Knight Park.
Despite any of those aims, however, Collingswood Fire Company executives said that what is most important to them is saving the historic home of the local fire service from demolition, which they regard as an erasure of their legacy. Losing the tax appeal could mean that decision would be taken out of their hands.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley declined to comment on the matter, except to say that the historic fire station is “a building that is no longer used for a public purpose,” and therefore is subject to tax assessment.
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