Hope fire Co. faced with restrictions on firehouse rentals
Building upgrades needed to allow for more events there BY JESSICA SMITH Staff Writer
ALLENTOWN — The Hope fire Company is at a crossroads, faced with the decision of whether to invest money in potential building upgrades that would allow for the firehouse to be rented for events.
“We’d like to keep it available for renting out,” Steve Gomba, Hope fire Company president, said, adding, “if it’s anything that is a big cost, we’re not going to be able to do anything.”
The volunteer company, which serves Allentown and Upper Freehold, received a letter from Ron Gafgen, construction official for both towns, early last month. in it, he informed the company of regulations that may require changes in the firehouse if it is to be rented out to the public.
“Itwas a bit of a surprise,” Gomba said. “I don’t know what prompted it.”
According to Gafgen, the fire company inquired about renting out its facilities to host parties and events, which prompted a closer look at the firehouse building at 82 Route 526 inAllentown to see if it were feasible.
The fire company’s existing facilities dictate under code that it can host a maximum of 100 people within the firehouse during the four events allowed during the year, according to Gafgen.
“They’re sort of limited to what they can do,” he said. “right now, 100 is their magic number as to what they cannot exceed.”
To exceed that, the fire company would have to expand its septic facilities and increase the number of bathroom fixtures to accommodate more guests, he said. in addition, sprinklers would have to be installed throughout the building, Gafgen said.
“There are an adequate number of exits,” he added.
The firehouse typically hosted four annual functions at the firehouse: the Allentown High School’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) and the Ladies Auxiliary dinner and basket auctions, along with two fundraisers for the fire company, an annual turkey dinner and a fish fry, Gomba said.
“It’s not going to affect any of our fundraising dinners,” he said.
It is, however, affecting some events. The Lions Club art auction recently slated to be held there had a last-minute switch in venue due to the restrictions, and Gomba said a few events had to be canceled since they received the letter.
The FFAwebsite stated that the organization is looking for another location for its annual dinner auction.
Having recently started offering the firehouse facilities for rental, it seemed that word was just getting around to the public about it, he said.
“we just started last year. It’s getting out slow, but there is a decent number of inquiries,” he said. “We’ve been turning everyone away.”
According to Gomba, the fire company’s next step is to hire an architect who could help to determine exactly what would be needed if they plan to move forward with the rentals.
Because of the building’s capacity limitations, he said they will not seek to host events for more than 100 people.
According to Gafgen, a larger septic system would be required if events were to exceed the 100-person capacity.
“That’s keeping them at the 100-occupant number,” he said.
The building’s use, however, also raises an issue. The firehouse is registered for business use, and would have to be classified for assembly use if additional events were to be held there, Gomba said.
Themain part of the building, with its various rooms and offices, totals more than 5,000 square feet, meaning that if the fire company wanted to host more than its allotted four events throughout the year there, a sprinkler system would be required.
Gafgen pointed out another option for the fire company. The building’s garage/bay area, or engine room — now used for storage — is separated from the main building by a twohour firewall, he said. Because that part of the facility is considered separate and it does not exceed 5,000 square feet, the fire company would not have to install sprinklers to host additional events for 100 or fewer guests there.
However, he said, that portion of the building is now zoned for storage, so it too would need a zoning change for assembly purposes.
Gomba said using the engine room is a possibility, adding that to do that, “panic hardware” may have to be installed on one of the exits there.
Because the firehouse is a relatively new building, constructed in the mid-1990s, Gomba said the required upgrades came as something of a shock.
“They basically designed the building to be used for our dinners,” he said, adding that the fire company therefore assumed all was up to par.
“It’s definitely a loss of income, but I don’t know what the expenses were,” he said.
Akey part of the decision-making process will rest on determining how much money the fire company would stand to bring in by moving forward with rentals. Gomba pointed out that utilities used during events are hidden costs that must be figured into the equation.
Bigger than the financial hit that comes from an at least temporary halt on event rentals, according to Gomba, was the loss of $20,000 that came in 2006 as part of Upper Freehold Township’s annual required contribution to the company.
Upper Freehold contributes $90,000 annually to theHope fire Company, which goes directly into the fire budget, Gomba said. The additional $20,000 once contributed by the township was allocated to the separate company budget, which covers firehouse expenses, including the mortgage, utilities, janitorial services, and other costs.
That money was an annual lease payment for housing the career staff from Upper Freehold five days a week, when those firefighters are on duty.
“That 20,000 was a bigger blow to us,” he said.
For a fire company that was struggling last year as well, the need to find creative ways to bring in money has become even more crucial.
“since the economy is not so good, our donations have gone down a little bit,” Gomba said. “We’ve definitely been struggling.”
So far, the company is planning for a car show in September or October like the one it held last year atAllentown High School, along with adding another weekend to its usual slate of holiday weekend coin tosses.
Each Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m., the firefighters hold a work detail night, when they come together to do routine building and equipment maintenance. Gomba invited the public to stop in on those evenings to help out, join the volunteers or simply pose any questions they may have.
“we have a committee together to look at newways of making money,” he said, adding, “We’re always looking for new volunteers.”