Chief Charles E. Pearce Jr. Pearce is pictured at the rearof… (Peter Hermann, BALTIMORE…)
MCCOOLE, Md. — — In rural hamlets, the volunteer fire station often doubles as the town square, community center and bingo parlor, where pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners bring everyone together at the same folding tables.
That used to happen here, in this tiny unincorporated community in Western Maryland, where the closest town with a paid police force is across the north branch of the Potomac River and railroad tracks in West Virginia. But the thrice-weekly games of bingo are down to just Sundays, with only a handful of diehards and old-timers attending.
The volunteer fire company established in 1938 is broke, and lenders filed a lawsuit last week seeking to seize everything, from the brick and mortar stationhouse and the adjacent hall, to the fire trucks, hose, nozzles and gloves.
If successful, Marquette Bank of Cook County, Ill. could own the McCoole Fire and Rescue Department of Allegany County.
The federal court action is the culmination of a long-simmering, small-town dispute over how the fire company is run and how it came to the brink of financial ruin, defaulting in September on quarterly $13,000 payments on a $624,000 loan.
"It's sad, it really is, but I'm not surprised," said 74-year-old William Ambrose, whose father was among those who founded the volunteer company seven decades ago and ran it for years on what he called "bare bones." He said the current chief "destroyed this place" by buying expensive fire engines and equipment he couldn't afford.
The chief is Charles E. Pearce Jr., a longtime community resident and volunteer who gave up his career fire job in Fairfax County, Va., and said he risked his family's nest egg, to head his hometown fire company. He said he's poured profits from his Hamburger Haven restaurant into the fire house, and has a lien on his own home to keep money flowing.
"Everybody is struggling," Pearce said, noting the sour economy during a tour of the fire house. He pointed out aging equipment and a hole in the roof — "we don't have the money to fix it." The chief shows a year-by-year tally of bingo proceeds, which plummeted from $270,000 in 2000 to $121,000 in 2010, the result of more than 100 people playing three times a week trickling down to 30 people playing once a week.
"I can't mismanage money I don't have," Pearce said.
Few in town think that the bank will actually seize the fire station and everything in it — the chief said he thinks the suit is a tactical maneuver to restructure and transfer the loan to a local bank. They do worry about getting help for fires and accidents — the nearest station is five miles away, the next is 15 miles away; McCoole's volunteers have answered 113 ambulance calls and 85 fire calls so far this year.
Residents also worry about losing a community anchor that draws together people scattered along rural back roads and Route 135, sort of a high-speed main street. McCoole's only school closed years ago; there are two diners, two gas stations, a smattering of churches and a VFW hall.
"That's it," said 72-year-old Ronald Welch, who has run the Gift Buggy gift shop across the street from the fire station for the past quarter-century, and where baseball caps with the words "Fire Department" are big sellers. He recalls years ago when bingo night meant traffic jams on Route 220.
"It's hard to imagine this place without the fire station," said Welch, who wants to retire and has a for-sale sign up on his shop. "I always assumed they were one of the most profitable ones around. They always have such nice equipment."
There are more than 370 volunteer fire companies in Maryland, and 23 in Allegany County. In some rural counties and even in some counties considered to be Baltimore suburbs, such as Harford County, they're the only fire protection available. In other places, such as Anne Arundel, volunteers and career firefighters work side-by-side.
Many volunteer companies are subsidized by county government and get state and federal grants. But a large part of their annual budgets come from fundraisers — from bingo nights to full-scale carnivals, bull roasts and direct-mail pleas for money.
While the image of fundraisers might be firefighters standing at corners trying to fill boots with coins, or selling raffle tickets, the money is hardly chump change. The Odenton Volunteer Fire Company, for example, takes in about $100,000 a year in donations, and the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company reported $4.7 million in assets in 2009.
The president of the Odenton company, Jimmie Allen, said it's been tough to raise money in recent years, but he also said that the communities the company serves in Anne Arundel County are expanding and that money is still coming in. They're planning a golf tournament this summer.