MECHANIC FALLS – Dust floated in the 85-degree air as workers hung a wall Monday, yanked nails from a hardwood floor and tossed debris from a second-story window.

Walls, ceilings and most of the floors have been stripped bare. One month into the renovation of the 75-year-old town hall, the demolition is nearly complete.

There’s a problem, though.

The centerpiece of the $675,000 project, the installation of a new elevator, has been delayed while engineers figure out how to best dig the elevator’s shaft in the sandy soil.

Shaft construction was already a challenge, because sandy walls are likely to crumble into any hole. Builders figured the problem would be lessened by a nearby foundation wall.

But when they dug into the basement floor, they discovered that the foundation wall disappears in the spot chosen for the shaft.

The original builders were probably trying to save money on the cost of cement, Town Manager Dana Lee said.

The fix will likely cost thousands of dollars, he said.

This week, engineers for contractor H.E. Callahan of Auburn and the town will examine the shaft site.

Michael Hickey, the contractor’s superintendent on the site, believes the fix will be affordable, he said.

“Everybody is well aware that this is an extremely finite budget,” he said. The comment drew appreciative nods from Lee, whose office, now located in a trailer on the town hall’s front lawn, includes a desktop sculpture of a bleeding stone.

Lee hopes to have a solid estimate of the shaft’s cost by mid-week, he said. His budget included a contingency for unexpected costs.

The renovation project was originally slated to cost nearly $1.3 million. Town leaders chafed at the number, so they cut the project’s scope, limiting the work to the building’s major systems and the installations needed to meet fire and accessibility codes, such as the elevator and sprinklers. The roof, aging windows and insulation will all go untouched.

“Nobody should be deluded into thinking that this is a full renovation,” Lee said. “It isn’t.”

They will make substantial improvements, though.

Demolition has included the removal of old pipes and radiators, asbestos and even the chalkboards, a remnant from the building’s days as a school. A new furnace, electrical and plumbing systems and phone and data lines will all be installed.

The work has continued while the police department occupies its offices in the hall’s first floor. By December, the police will move to the second floor and the contractor will finish the building in their wake.

The builders hope to finish by February 2004.

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