Circumstances change in vote on old high school in Wilmington

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WILMINGTON — The lack of a developer's bid in a request-for-proposal process changed the context of an upcoming vote, pausing efforts made over the last two years to make use of the vacant high school building.

Wilmington School Board member Adam Grinold said he felt "very uncomfortable" looking for an affirmative vote that would give the board authority to sell the building without a developer.

"I was voted to be a school director. I don't want to decide what that facility is used for," he said during an informational meeting on Thursday. "It should be the Select Board in my opinion. We need to be partners in that."

Wilmington residents will be voting via Australian ballot on Thursday, July 14. Polling will occur at the Twin Valley Elementary School music room from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Absentee ballots can be filled out now.

A vote denying the board the power to transfer ownership would delay the Wilmington School District from divesting itself of the building, said School Board member Kathy Larsen.

"Legally, we have to do it. We might lose prospective tenants like the Gathering Place," she said, referring to the Brattleboro-based adult day-service provider.

Dennis Richter, former School Board member, said he would rather see a plan before voting to give selling authority to the board.

School Board Chairman Phil Taylor said he'd love to stay on the board if he could focus solely on education but it was not possible a lot of the time.

"I think we've shown that we've been pretty responsible. Dennis (Richter), you're not on the board anymore and you know darn well and you (Grinold) know this budget season is going to be tough," Taylor said, beginning to raise his voice in irritation. "You (Richter) said you wanted more support for this option (town taking over ownership). Where's your petition?"

The high school was closed for education after the consolidation of Wilmington and Whitingham schools. A facility in Whitingham was renovated for middle and high school students from the towns. An elementary school in Wilmington also saw updates to accommodate both districts' kids.

Currently, with the exception of Windham Southwest Supervisory Union offices, there are no tenants in the old high school.

But interest from organizations in being a part of a community center is still present, according to officials.

"We recognize the property's technically an asset of the residents of Wilmington and the School Board feels strongly that whatever happens with this property has to enhance the town," said Taylor. "We want assurance that the next owner is going to be responsible and we're not just going to give the building away to anyone."

He said a deed restriction will ensure the fields can still be used for sporting events, fireworks on July 4 and the annual Deerfield Valley Farmers' Day Fair. The board also hopes to be able to negotiate with a new owner about keeping the gym for activities.

Leasing space to host a community center, an idea that's been around for about 10 years since residents Janet Boyd and Cindy Hayford originally proposed it at other properties, is another item the board has prioritized.

"It's not a certainty," Taylor said. "We don't know what kind of demands or needs a private developer is going to have."

The town currently pays user fees for the properties.

According to Taylor, the annual cost could go from about $100,000 down to $50,000 if the school district no longer owns it but still uses it.

Liabilities associated with asbestos, an older section needing to be removed, some mechanical and roof issues, and the need to replace windows were recognized in the School Board's RFP process that was deemed unsuccessful by board members.

"The vote is about seeking authority for transfer of ownership. The authority is not specific to any one developer but authority for the School Board to sell based on the conditions that we've set forth," said Taylor, who noted the difficulty in having talks with developers when a vote was still up in the air and required by state law. "It's hard finding a buyer and we don't have a lot of opportunities."

The potential for the town taking over ownership has been discussed but no formal action by the Select Board was made after Stevens & Associates was hired to conduct a second feasibility study on the building.

An approximately $4.5 million estimate did not inspire board members to move in that direction. A previous study by Bread Loaf Corporation had a $1.5 million price tag for a community center, and did not factor in relocation of all town departments and offices besides police.

Some residents say some semblance of the project can be done for a cost lower than the one outlined in the Stevens study. For now, Taylor said the School Board is looking for interested parties with "a history of developing" and a plan that might include a community center. Other items for consideration include the financial ability to fund construction and a statement of minimum investment. Competitive prices around square footage for leasing purposes also would be sought by the board.

The board issued the RFP thinking it might get two bidders, Taylor said, mentioning the candidate who had a strong interest in the building but never submitted a bid.

A bid from Keelan Company, a St. Johnsbury-based developer responsible for constructing Southwestern Vermont Medical Center satellite locations, featured plans to raze the whole building. A community center could then be constructed if there was interest from the town.

The troubling aspect was the inclusion of some fees the town would be liable for paying such as removal of asbestos, replacement of an oil tank and half the cost of demolition.

"That's roughly around $400,000," Taylor said. "It didn't take much deliberation on the School Board's part that this wasn't going to fly. They might come back with another offer. We're not quite sure."

He said he thought Keelan was bidding with the intent to use the parcel for the hospital but was not representing the hospital. The hospital has been looking at properties around town to move its Deerfield Valley campus, which is currently at the intersection of Route 9 and 100.

Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon said he spoke with two SVMC representatives because he wanted to make sure "we don't lose the health center."

"They do not want to be in a renovated space in the old high school," he said. "They're still deciding what to do. I think they're still frustrated in how long this process is taking. I really do think what they want to do is replicate their Pownal health center as closely as possible. Their preference is for a new building."

Asked about the other candidate, Taylor said, "There was follow up."

"There was no call back. I'm still pursuing it, though. I did hear from an individual who did some work for him that he got involved in other projects and maybe that was the reason," he said. "If he's still viable, I still want to follow up."

Another avenue for dealing with renovation costs is Community Development Block Grant funding, which is federal money that states administer to towns for projects.

Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington's economic development consultant, said an application could fit "urgent need or slum and blight" requirements for the program.

Resident Gary Henry saw potential in not only a community center but an arts center as well.

"We could get some grant money from the Vermont Arts Council then it could involve the elderly and kids. The gym could be multi-purpose with musical functions of course and other exhibits," he said. "That way, it would be good for the community, even the tourism aspect of it."

Taylor agreed. What was needed, he said, was someone to lead the efforts.

The Old School Enrichment Center committee still has a vision, said committee member Cammie Swanson. The group looked at options around funding the community center and was greeted with funding challenges.

"There's no 100 percent grants. There's always a match," Havreluk said. "OSEC did a tremendous amount of work on figuring out square footage and how much we can get, what makes it sustainable, what's the cost. They have worked with a lot of the organizations that were interested in going in there. So again, you need to make it sustainable. That's the key to the whole thing."

The building could remain vacant for a few years with the town still paying for heating and lighting costs, resident Nicki Steel pointed out. She wondered if a minimal investment could see a community center sooner rather than later.

"I don't think someone's going to be walking down the street tomorrow and say, 'That's the building I want,'" she said.

As Wilmington and Whitingham prepare to consolidate their school districts to comply with a new law mandating mergers statewide — currently, they work as joint districts as the Twin Valley School Board — the building could become more controversial. Approximately 60 percent of the building's costs are covered by Wilmington and 40 percent by Whitingham.

Pettee Memorial Library Librarian Allison Maynard said she spent seven hours at a long-term planning meeting for Wilmington in the winter.

"I overwhelmingly heard that the people of Wilmington are really looking for a community center," she said. "My problem is I think we're putting the cart before the horse here. I think we're voting just to vote."

A petition with 192 signatures urged the town to sell the building.

But Hayford said she thinks there should be a vote on whether to set up a community center. She had heard the same "overwhelming support" that Maynard had.

Steel looked at recent development, cautioning residents against giving up the property.

"That place is the only place in town where we might be able to have something for us," said Steel. "There's so much happening in this town that the people who live here can't go to, can't afford, aren't allowed in. And I always think of that expression, 'If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.' So if you don't have a community center or a place where you can meet, you lose a soul of a town if all you're doing is serving people to come from the outside."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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