Historic Wilmington Fire House 5

Historic Wilmington Fire House 5

Wilmington firefighters have lost their bid to keep a historic firehouse in the Forty Acres neighborhood.

"I feel like the...firefighters fight for everything," said Local 1590 firefighters union president Joe Leonetti Jr.

In April 2018, the Montchanin Group backed out of the proposal to buy the property, then city council passed a resolution recommending the city give the firehouse to the firefighters. Councilman Bud Freel noted city council doesn't have the authority to give the property to the union.

But Thursday night, Wilmington City Council voted to approve a request for proposal from Dr. Doug Patterson to purchase the firehouse for $200,000.

"As folks know, it's zoned 'residential.' His use will be a single-family home; his application had documentation submitted that verified that he can fund the $1 million that's been estimated in restoring the facility, it's felt that the residential use is the best fit," said Freel, whose district is where the firehouse is located. "It creates the least disruption to the community for parking and other issues. This property will go back on the tax rolls, it will also generate wage tax from the salary of Dr. Patterson and his wife."

Leonetti objected during public comment.

"I have no ill will for this doctor that wants to purchase it, but $200,000? I could buy a rundown house in that neighborhood for $200,000," said Leonetti.

Leonetti said the firefighters union had wanted to turn the vacant fire station on Gilpin Avenue into a museum to celebrate their history as they approach their centennial.

"We want to keep that building historic. It's our last historic firehouse in the city. We had a lot of stuff that was in there that was historic--it's part of us, it's our history--we wanted to make it a museum, a place for the community," said Leonetti.

Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, who voted in favor of the proposal, said the city has enough non-profits.

"Non-profits are killing this city. Who's paying the taxes? We have more non-profits in this city than we can shake a stick at," said Walsh.

She also addressed accusations made about this property.

"The accusations that are being made are simply untrue--just because it comes out of your mouth doesn't make it the truth, some of these comments are just outrageous because it's almost the old 'I don't beat my wife. At least I don't beat my wife anymore.' You don't. The accusations about this mayor with this particular property...this is a very old, established neighborhood. They don't need new businesses to come in to up the property values in this neighborhood," she said. "This is not against the firefighters; these guys are trained to be firefighters...but the request is not by the fire department, it is from the union, and if you look at what they proposed, it's simply not there...the mayor's job and our job on this council is to protect our neighborhoods, to protect our taxpayers, so that they're not paying for another failed project."

In a statement, Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki's deputy chief of staff for policy and communication John Rago said the mayor supports Dr. Patterson's proposal for a number of reasons, including that the now-tax-exempt property is in a state of disrepair that recently cost the city $25,000 for a partial new roof. The city adds the sale will make this property taxable once again and, in addition, it will receive realty transfer tax revenue from the sale of the property. The mayor said he believes in Patterson's commitment to spend $1 million to renovate the property, which will result in wage tax from employees hired to do the project, and an uptick in property values in the neighborhood.  

Councilwoman Linda Gray, who voted "no" on the RFP said the city should stand by its initial resolution to recommend the building go to firefighters.

"We passed a resolution in April 18, stating that the firehouse should go to the firemen, and I understand that resolutions are not law, but when council reverses their resolutions how can the public have any confidence in us?" she asked. "I have a problem with how council is dealing with their vote on how they think their constituents want things."

Councilwoman Rysheema Dixon said she was between a "rock and a hard place" on this.

"When you're offering $200,000 to the City of Wilmington, of course that is going to stand out, in comparison to what the fire union is able to give," she noted. "I just felt like it was skewed as far as...the RFP itself," she said.

The vote comes as the city of Wilmington and its firefighters cannot come to a contract agreement. The union has rejected the city's "best and final offer" which requires them to change their shift. Now, both parties are going to binding arbitration.

Councilman Chris Johnson called it a "tough" issue and referenced the contract dispute, which he said is more important.

"At the end of the day, that's not going to change the landscape of this city, what happens to this building," he said. 

Johnson and Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver, who both voted in favor of the sale, said they'd support it because Freel supports it.

Councilman Sam Guy criticized council's course reversal and the administration.

"This council...9-1 authorized this property to be disposed of to the non-profit firefighters union so that they could move forward with their goal and vision of a museum and a kind of community building," said Guy. "The mayor, everybody whose been paying attention...knows that if you say the word 'Wilmington firefighters,' the mayor's against them breathing air. He'll mess with their contract; he'll mess with their work schedule--whatever it is. He's got hate and [animosity] towards them. He never shared with any of us on council...where the mayor sat down and commenced a negotiation with the firefighters union--a nonprofit--to work out the details of them having the opportunity to have their vision come to a reality. The mayor did what he always does, the only thing that matters is what he and his developer friends want to do, and anything anybody else wants to do, whether it's cameras, anything else, it's unimportant if it's not what he wants."

Guy didn't vote for the proposal and questioned whether the city ever entered negotiations with the firefighters union.

"If it's 9 to 1, I'll be the one, if that's how it turns out...this why the mayor doesn't have a whole lot of respect for city council as an institution...when nine of us said, 'Mayor, we want you to negotiate with the firefighters union'--the people that risk their lives for us and want to do something good for the city and the community--we don't have any communication from the mayor as to how those negotiations went," he said. "If you want to understand why city council is just looked at in a way where what we say is just disregarded, we may as well not say anything unless we're saying what the mayor wants said, then that'll be honored."

The city confirmed to WDEL it never negotiated with the union on the sale of the firehouse.

The sale was ultimately approved in a vote 7-5.

Council members Gray, Congo, Turner, Guy, and McCoy votes "no" while council members Oliver, Harley, Johnson, Freel, Adams, Walsh, and President Shabazz voted "yes." Councilwoman Dixon voted "present." 

"It's heartbreaking to firefighters, it's a piece of history that's been in that neighborhood since the 1890s...and we just wanted to keep it...a beacon of hope, where kids could come by and see an old fire truck, talk to some retired firefighters," Leonetti. "If we sat down, and they looked at us in the face and said, 'Your planning just isn't good enough, we're not going to do it,' it'd be a hard pill to swallow, but at least they sat and looked us in the face. They never even gave us a shot, and at this point we're just used to it--the constant beatings. the fire department always takes the hits."