Fire department leaves its home

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 10, 2004

DEMOPOLIS – City firefighters are beginning the process to vacate their long-time home on the city square.

The white brick building with its bell tower has long been a striking feature to on the Public Square – one of the oldest in Alabama, it having been dedicated in 1819.

Now in need of repair, the building will be renovated by the city into a city council chambers and a welcome center for the city. The fire, police and municipal courts will eventually be housed in the West Alabama Health Building at Washington and Cedar, another renovation that’s tentatively planned to cost nearly $1.8 million.

“They’re going to gut this building,” said Fire Capt. Tommy Tate. He and a handful of firefighters at two stations protect the city on the “day shift.”

The old building was built around 1843 as a Presbyterian church, and was later used as the Marengo County Courthouse from 1869-1871. It saw duty as the city’s opera house before becoming home to the fire department.

Tate wasn’t sure when the building was first pressed into use as the downtown firehouse.

“It’s been here forever,” he said.

Former Fire Chief Aubrey Randall doesn’t know either.

“We never could find out. The first fire station was by the old magnolia tree by the Demopolis Inn – it was just a garage-type thing but they moved the station from there to its present location,” he said.

Randall, who retired in 1990, knew the station well – in fact, he once inhabited its second floor when he first became fire chief. Before then, he served as the assistant chief and lived in apartments above city hall.

A city ordinance required the chief and assistant chief to live in those two locations.

“When Dr. Ketchum was mayor, he didn’t see any reason for it and they had the ordinance changed and we were able to buy our house,” he said.

Although one could find a lot of sentimental attachment to a building – especially within the fire service that has many long-standing traditions – Randall said the “fire house” as it’s commonly known had seen its day.

“I think it’s outdated where it is but I personally think I would have looked for a better location than where it’s going. (The department) needs a new modern station and it’s going to be permanent,” he said, tongue-in-cheekly referring that the fire house had been there “a hundred years.”

That expresses what may be on the minds of others looking at the city’s decision to move forward with renovations of the empty building it purchased from West Alabama Health Services, Inc. for $320,000.

Tate, with site plan drawings of the city’s new 21,900 square-foot Public Safety Complex in hand, said it was time to get out of the building.

“We’re ready to get out of the building,” he said. “There are a lot of things we need that we can’t do here.”

The way the plan is laid out, Tate describes the Public Safety Complex as three buildings “inside a building.”

“There are separate areas for fire, police and the city court. You won’t be able to walk from the fire department into the police station, for example,” he said.

The department was under a 60-day window to be moved out of the building, but because the city council rejected bids on the firehouse renovation project, firefighters have a small reprieve, said City Clerk Vickie Taylor.

Bids opened last week for the firehouse renovation project were about twice as high as the council had anticipated.

In the meantime, firefighters at the downtown station will be housed at the old Gary Malone buildings, a mobile home serving as a station, and the building’s garage housing fire trucks until the Public Safety Complex is completed.