With Collingswood shifting from a combination paid-and-volunteer fire department to a fire service staffed exclusively with career professionals, a battle for control of the historic firehouse has left longtime volunteers wondering what will become of their fire company.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 10, 2023
Since the 2021 opening of the Collingswood public safety building, which united the borough police and fire departments under a single roof, the fate of the historic Collingswood firehouse has lingered in the air.
Its owners, the nonprofit, all-volunteer Collingswood Fire Company No. 1 — not the professional firefighters of the Collingswood Fire Department — now say the fate of their organization is just as uncertain.
Since the departure of the fire department, its paid professionals, and their firefighting apparatus for the new headquarters, the Fire Company has tried to find a new purpose for its building.
A deal that would have converted the old station into a microbrewery fell through in April 2022 after a potential buyer’s environmental survey revealed “gasoline-related contamination in soil and groundwater” at the site, part of which operated as a service station for some 60 years.
In the meantime, since the building no longer functions as the designated fire station for Collingswood, the borough has regarded it as a private property subject to taxation.
In December 2022, the municipality billed the Fire Company for some $53,000 in assessments on the property dating back to October 2021, when the Collingswood Fire Department moved its operations into the new public safety building. The Fire Company, which is a registered 501c3 entity, argued instead that its nonprofit status exempts it from such taxation.
Before that argument could be resolved, however, the borough government discovered that the Collingswood Fire Department was still garaging some of its fire apparatus in the old headquarters, and rescinded the bill. Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said that exemption will last until October 2023, when the next assessments are levied.
However, that doesn’t resolve the long-term concerns of the Fire Company, members of which say the fate of their building is tied to larger questions about the future of the organization within the borough.
Questions about what to do with the building first surfaced years ago, even before the borough government began planning for its new public safety building.
As the earliest drafts of those ideas were being developed — which, at various points, included redeveloping lots occupied by the fire station — the mayor asked the Fire Company to consider turning the building over to the municipality.
“Because the borough citizens have funded this building, we don’t want to buy it,” Maley said of the conversations had at that time.
“All I want to know is, do you have an interest in turning it over to us?” he said.
“If not, we will make other plans.”
“I didn’t ask for me,” Maley said.
“I asked for the residents of Collingswood that have paid for that building.
“When [the Fire Company] didn’t give an answer, we went another route.”
Collingswood Fire Company Secretary Glen Schuehler said the organization was willing to give the building over to the borough, but not for free, and not without knowing its intended fate.
“They told us, ‘We want you to give us the property,’” Schuehler said. “We said, ‘You can have it, but give us something for it. What are you going to do with it?’ They couldn’t give us an answer.”
Schuehler contends that after the Collingwood public safety building was constructed, the Fire Company was again approached about turning its building over to the borough, this time with an offer to dedicate the proceeds from its sale to the purchase of new apparatus for the Collingswood Fire Department. Again, the company declined.
Collingswood Fire Company President John Amet said the organization objects to the notion that the firehouse is inherently the property of the borough taxpayers just because the organization has subsisted on their contributions. He added that the borough paid well below market-rate rents for use of the building during its tenure there, and that those revenues are gone since the Collingswood Fire Department ceased its operations there.
“I can guarantee you that every last dollar of donations that came from individual households is almost gone,” Amet said. “Just because the borough rented the building, what gives them the right to the funds? We were a landlord; you were a tenant.”
Since Collingswood shifted its firefighting duties to a full-time, paid crew, opportunities for volunteer firefighters have likewise dwindled. Collingswood Fire Company members fear that without the revenue from the sale of the building, their ability to work with the local fire service in any capacity will be gone for good.
Furthermore, state statute prevents the Fire Company or any of its members from profiting personally from the sale of the old firehouse. They have said they’d like to direct some of the proceeds from any private sale of the building to a selection of charities instead.
“The guys that are volunteers have put countless hours in, have gotten paid for nothing, and worked on fundraising, donations, give-backs,” Schuehler said.
“Essentially, we’re asking for nothing other than to be able to sell the building and continue to be a firemanic organization,” he said; “participate in some sort of firefighting activities, whether it be fire police, or some kind of fireground assistance.
“If we can get ourselves to some form of an organization where the borough recognizes us, we can get to work on recruitment,” Schuehler said.
“Since they’ve moved out of our building, we don’t know if there’s anyone interested in volunteering. We don’t know what’s going on on Haddon Avenue.”
While the company has sought to broker a deal for its building on the open market, its members have pursued other opportunities to bring in revenues. Currently, a deal with the Cradle of Liberty Antique Fire Apparatus Association has the facility serving as a garage for decommissioned engines.
Amet also dismissed reports of that arrangement functioning as a museum with public visiting hours in Collingswood; Cradle of Liberty already has a museum in Repaupo.
“They’re renting space for us to store their fire trucks,” he said. “It’s not open to the public; it’s not a museum organization. They’re not charging anything.”
Maley said that if the facility were to be used as a public gathering space, other building code issues would need to be addressed, which returns to the question of its environmental remediation. The mayor has pledged that the borough stands ready to “do the work to get it to the point where the property can be sold.
“We are happy to help,” he said. “It’s a good building; we’d like to see a good use of it. They had it under an agreement to sell it for a brewery; that would be a great use for it.
“When we met with them, they told us they don’t have the money to do the next study on the environmental, but they want to have people in there,” Maley said.
“We told them, if we get involved, and we’re going to spend money, we think if there is anything left [from the sale of the building], it should go to the fire service.”
Fire Company officials believe the building can be sold as-is, however.
They aren’t willing to hand over the property, nor control of the revenue from its sale, even for help with the environmental remediation, because they fear that to do so would be the death knell for their organization.
“We would love to work with anybody in the borough, but we’ve not had income for the last year-and-a-half,” Schuehler said. “We need to get ourselves back up onto our feet and make some decisions about our path forward.
“First and foremost, we want to be volunteers in the town again,” he said. “We want to get back to assisting. There’s no fire truck for us to participate in helping with fires now. I’m not even sure there’s a car that we could get into to help with directing traffic.
“We know the borough has no interest in that building,” Schuehler said. “We would like to sell it. It’s too much for us; there’s nothing we can do with it. We’d like to get a meeting place, which I’m sure would cost us money; get back to recruiting, and being a part of the community, and helping out with firefighting and volunteerism.”
Fire Company officials said they’d love to see the facility preserved, ultimately, even if in a different use. They believe they can either find a buyer that will help achieve that, or find grants to remediate the site on their own — but they are running out of time to do either.
In the meantime, the company claims that Collingswood has been ratcheting up the pressure to sell with heightened code enforcement, tax bills, and other violations.
The most significant of these actions, however, came at the May meeting of the borough government, when Collingswood commissioners passed an ordinance modifying the municipal code to recognize that “all fire protection services for the Borough are now exclusively provided by the Borough’s Fire Department,” and not by “a combination paid and volunteer” service.
In practice, Collingswood has not had a volunteer firefighter respond to a call for service since 2018.
However, Schuehler and Amet said that’s because there’s been no opportunity for volunteers to train with the career firefighters, and no fire vehicle with which volunteers could respond to an emergency anyway.
In March, the Collingswood Fire Department announced it would sell off a seldom-used ladder truck to Camden City through a deal brokered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, while it aims to acquire a new pumper.
That truck had been used mostly as a reserve apparatus, and to train firefighters, Collingswood Fire Chief Geoff Joyce said at the time.
“Every Tuesday for probably 100 years, we’ve had evening training,” Schuehler said. “About four or five years ago, they said, ‘We’re going to be training during the day.’ That pretty much killed our volunteers.”
As the months have drawn on, there is no love lost between either party. What remains to be seen is whether both sides could find a path forward that allows the volunteer group to determine its own fate while also settling that of its old home.
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