By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — For nearly a century, the white clapboard building served as a school, senior center and social service offices for several generations of town residents.
Now, the former Mary Foss School is hitting the auction block.
The town has put the 89-year-old building up for sale to the highest bidder.
The auction, to be conducted by James R. St. Jean Auctioneers of Epping, is set for Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. The minimum bid for the 1.4-acre property, assessed at $410,000, is $150,000.
Escalating maintenance costs prompted the town to consider selling the dilapidated building, which costs about $25,000 a year to heat and maintain, according to Town Manager Keith Hickey.
It needed major upgrades to its roof, siding and heating system, and contained potentially hazardous asbestos and lead paint.
Selectmen decided to ask voters in March for their permission to sell the property and they agreed.
Selectmen's Chairman Everett McBride said Thursday the town needs to focus its efforts and money on maintaining its other properties.
He recalled how the building served as the town's senior center when he first became a selectman in 1993. The senior center was on the first floor and social service agencies had their offices on the second floor until the Ingram Senior Center opened 11 years ago, McBride said.
It opened as a school in 1924, but has not been used for that purpose for years.
While the building served the community for decades, it was time to move on, McBride said. He said he would not be surprised if the new owner razed the building, but didn't want to speculate.
"We have too many buildings to maintain," McBride said. "It was decided it wasn't worth maintaining. We really had to prioritize."
But it's been more than six months since voters opted to part with the 7,479-square-foot building. It's stood vacant since last winter.
The town decided to invest some time and money in upgrading and studying the property before selling the site, Hickey said.
That meant unearthing an old fuel tank, even though it had not leaked oil, Hickey said.
"We wanted to make sure it was clean and there weren't concerns they would have to deal with some kind of contamination," he said.
It also meant determining the feasibility of removing the lead paint on the building's exterior and asbestos floor tiles, Hickey said.
The town spent $5,210 to remove the tank and an additional $1,685 on a study of the lead paint and asbestos removal, he said.
The study revealed it would cost between $15,000 to $50,000 to address the problem — depending on the options — and $18,000 to remove the asbestos tiles, Hickey said.
Until the building was vacated last winter so it could be sold, it served as a home to nonprofit agencies such as Rockingham Community Action, ServiceLink and the Greater Salem Caregivers. It also housed municipal offices, most recently the town's human services department.
The nonprofits groups — exempt from paying rent — were not happy with the decision, but reluctantly relocated. Some agencies moved to the former state Department of Motor Vehicles space at Town Hall, but now are required to pay $200 a month in rent.
Caregivers executive director Richard O'Shaughnessy said the building of social service professionals and volunteers was like one big, happy family.
On her last day working there Jan. 31, Caregivers volunteer Lorraine Fernandez said the building with the peeling paint had a lot of sentimentality for her.
"I will really miss it — it's big and comfortable," she said. "I have to say goodbye to the school before I leave."