AUGUSTA — Like the material itself, a plan for what the Legislature eventually will do with the more than 7,000 square feet of copper being replaced on the State House dome is still up in the air.

Lawmakers on the Legislative Council on Tuesday set in motion a plan to get more details on what might be possible and how much of the copper they might reasonably expect to salvage or reuse. Work on the dome began in March.

Lawmakers said they would look into whether the $1.3 million renovation project for the State House should participate in the the state’s Percent for Art program, which requires one percent of the total cost of public building construction or renovations that cost more than $100,000 go toward art in the facility.

“I am a particular fan of being sure that we use some of this for artwork,” said state Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland. “I think there is likely to be a significant amount of interest in a project where we could put together a contest of sorts.”

Haskell said she believed some of the copper could be sold or auctioned to people who wanted mementos of the building, particularly state employees or lawmakers who have worked in the State House.

The entire copper covering of the State House’s iconic dome is being replaced this summer, a project that will change the color of the dome from its green patina to a shiny new copper. It will take about 30 years for the new covering to again turn green as it oxidizes over time.

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The state originally had contracted to salvage 500 square feet of the old copper and to give the contractor doing the renovation salvage rights on the remaining copper, valued at an estimated $15,000. 

But the Legislative Council on Tuesday asked officials at the Maine Arts Commission to help them come up with a plan for using some of the copper in a way that would help preserve state history and create art. The copper could be sold, auctioned or even given to artists based on proposals they make for using it to create Maine-centric art for the state.

Haskell, along with others on the committee, suggested that at least one small section of the roof be saved, as is, for display to show what the dome looked like prior to the renovation, which is expected to be completed in November.

The idea that the state may want to keep more than 500 square feet of the original copper came up during a Legislative Council meeting earlier this month and state Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he too believed there’s broad interest in doing more with the copper than the state originally anticipated.

Other lawmakers on the committee, including state Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said they support the idea of doing something artistic with the old copper, but they wanted a practical plan for disposing of the copper in a cost-effective way.

“It’s a logistics thing to me,” Thibodeau said. “I think it’s a wonderful idea if we can make this available to a whole host of people, and the art community may be one of them.”

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But equally important was what the state did with the copper in the meantime, Thibodeau said. He said where the state stored the copper and how much it would cost to do that along with some kind of follow-up plan to ensure it doesn’t just get stored without ever being used is key.

“I don’t have to figure out what they are going to make out of it,” Thibodeau said. “I just need to figure out how to get it off the roof in a cost-effective manner, put it someplace safe and not cost the taxpayers a fortune in the meantime.”

Thibodeau said he wouldn’t want the state to be stuck storing the salvaged copper for a decade without it being used for anything.

“We don’t want to find out 10 years later that nobody used it and it was never disposed of,” Thibodeau said.

Berry agreed that having a practical plan was important to the process.

David Boulter, executive director of the Legislative Council and the official responsible for the State House grounds and buildings, said the copper alone was a valuable commodity.

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“We could take it off the dome and put it on the lawn and the next morning it would be gone, if we are not careful,” Boulter said. He said in speaking with the contractor doing the renovation work it is believed much of the copper sheeting could be removed “reasonably intact.” He said the state would have to decide how much it wants to save and then rent a portable storage unit to secure it until it is distributed to artists, auctioned off or sold.

Lawmakers of the Legislative Council, which has ultimate say over the State House building, voted to have the arts commission come back in late June with additional information. 

Boulter said the work removing the old copper and replacing it with new would be ongoing into November and the council had at least until September to decide what it wants to do with the old copper.

Berry said lawmakers should make a careful plan for recycling the material as artwork or scrap to get the most value out of it for taxpayers and citizens.

Ultimately, Berry, said the State House, including the materials it is built with, belong to the people of Maine and public involvement in deciding how the copper will be used is important.

“I think we are all very conscious of that,” Berry said. “This is the people’s house. The artistic value, the cultural value, the participatory value is very important.”

Berry said it was important the council follow the same laws the state requires other public entities to follow with the Percent for Art program.

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