A proposed plan to turn a vacant portion of the Gilchrist Mall into a new fire station is being challenged by community members who do not want to see the historical mall altered and want to keep it available for future retail businesses.

For the past two years, the Crescent Fire District has worked to find a new fire station, as it is outgrowing its current station, built in 1971. The fire district formed a steering committee of fire district board members, staff and volunteers, which recently recommended pursuing the Gilchrist Mall.

The plan is to buy the entire mall, leave the existing businesses but move the fire department into a vacant 13,000-square-foot building in the middle of the mall. None of the mall would be torn down, and its appearance would be kept as historical as possible, Crescent Fire District Chief Dylan Webb said.

“This decision was weighed heavily on many different fronts,” said Webb. “The opportunity to renovate the interior of the middle building of the mall to incorporate apparatus bays could be done at a much cheaper cost than building a new fire station.”

The mall is owned by the Ernst Family Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization in Gilchrist, located on U.S. Highway 97 south of Bend. The foundation has listed the mall for sale at about $800,000.

It would cost the fire department about $1 million to buy and renovate the mall, but that is far less than the $4 million the department estimates it would cost to build a new building, Webb said.

The mall is a main hub that houses the town’s grocery store, bank, post office and library. But much of the space has sat empty.

“A large portion of the mall is and has been vacant for many years, including the original store, restaurant, bowling alley, lodge and conference room,” Webb said.

John Driscoll, a Gilchrist resident who wrote the book, “Gilchrist, Oregon: The Model Company Town,” said he and others are concerned with the logistics of having a fire station in the middle of an already busy mall.

“It stands to reason if you have a fire station right in the middle of that, it’s going to be disruptive,” Driscoll said.

In addition, Gilchrist is nearing the completion of the Crescent sewer system, which Driscoll expects will help bring more residents and businesses to the North Klamath County town.

Open retail space in the mall could be desirable soon with new businesses as more people move in, Driscoll said.

“The mall is the heart of the town,” Driscoll said. “As those businesses open back up, it will be more so.”

Driscoll is working with a historic preservation consultant to nominate the mall for the National Register of Historic Places, which would make it more difficult to renovate the building.

The mall is already recognized by the state as a historically significant structure. It was considered the first mall built east of the Cascades in Oregon when it was built in 1939.

“If the mall is altered as proposed, it won’t function as a mall anymore,” Driscoll said. “That will alter the character of Gilchrist. We have our own character, and a lot of that has to do with the mall.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com