Funding request rejected for Wilmington school reuse

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WILMINGTON — The nonprofit group gearing up to take over the former Twin Valley High School left Wednesday's meeting empty handed.

"I can't give you the $98,000," Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald told the Old School Enrichment Council. "Number one, you don't own the building. And number two, that's over our threshold."

The request from the 1 percent local option tax fund triggered some tension between Fitzgerald and Select Board member Ann Manwaring, who urged him to schedule a work session right away to talk about policy around the fund.

Any application for over 20 percent of the fund's balance is supposed to go to voters. Town officials were reviewing the balance and prior commitments on Thursday, according to Gretchen Havreluk, the town's economic development consultant.

Manwaring told Fitzgerald she wanted to have a work session before OSEC returns with the request.

"I'm a little uncomfortable leaving it just like that," she said.

"You're trying to force something," said Fitzgerald.

"I am," replied Manwaring to a round of applause in a roomful of people. "I think there's a fiduciary responsible of this board."

Two members of the board have not talked about their views on the 1 percent fund, she said, including herself. She also noted the absence of Board Vice Chairman John Gannon.

OSEC member Steve Goldfarb believes his group will close on the sale of the building in about a week. The goal is to create a community center.

"We haven't done a huge amount of fundraising yet because we don't own the building," said Cindy Hayford, OSEC chairwoman.

The Wilmington Fund, a nonprofit group created after Tropical Storm Irene, has given her group $13,500. A donation campaign has solicited $12,500 from local residents. And a farm-to-table event at Boyd Family Farm netted about $6,000.

A list of grant opportunities being pursued included sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture, Community Development Block Grant, Windham Foundation and more. Hayford said she has 19 years of grant-writing experience. She plans to receive help from Gretchen Havreluk, town economic development consultant, and Meg Staloff, program coordinator for the downtown organization Wilmington Works.

OSEC expects the project to yield at least 10 to 25 jobs paying mostly above minimum wage. Renovations are intended to expand recreation, educational opportunities and senior activities, and create a community room with a kitchen and artist studios/galleries. The Twin Valley schools will continue to be able to use the gym and fields. Events can be held in the building and the town can keep it designated as an emergency shelter.

Now, the building is used about 595 hours per year for basketball, pickleball and other community activities. The hope is to have even more programming and invite other towns to take advantage of the space.

John Howe, OSEC treasurer, said his group feels "very strongly" that the project will improve the quality of life while bringing jobs to the town.

"A key component to securing both federal and state either loans or grants is being able to identify and show strong community support," he said. "And I think, if the Select Board awards us the funds we are looking for, this would provide very strong evidence that they are supporting this program."

Questioning the plan to request annual allocations of $60,000 in both school and town taxes, Fitzgerald said, "We seem to be stacking the debt." Howe encouraged him to think of it as part of economic development.

Meg Streeter, OSEC member, said her group has been in a purchase-and-sale agreement for the building with the Wilmington School District since May and "certain contingencies" are being met by the school district. An oil tank is being replaced and an environmental study is underway.

The building is "not riddled with mold," Streeter said, noting that had been a concern with the roof leaking. The nurse's room and janitor's closet are the spaces affected, according to Hayford.

OSEC estimates that the building will need less than $600,000 to make the space attractive to tenants. But Howe believes $2.2 million will be necessary in the long term.

"The key here is that it doesn't come back on the taxpayers," Fitzgerald told the group.

He said a lot of the project's backers attended Wednesday's meeting but plenty of people are not so supportive of the plans.

Select Board member Sarah Fisher suggested paying vendors rather than the nonprofit.

"I think the volunteers don't have enough skin in the game to make sure you are getting that rental of $38,000 next year," she said, referring to an estimated annual revenue from tenants.

OSEC's "skin in the game" is of an emotional kind, Howe told the board, noting that $23,000 would go to an architectural consultant. Streeter said she sees value in hiring a full-time building manager at some point.

Resident Nicki Steel, who has long been a supporter of the project, received a round of applause after calling for the board to see the community center as an opportunity — a place locals can go and interact in a resort area, where some activities can be off limits to them.

In other business:

- Responding to complaints about road construction on Route 9 during the prime of summer tourist season, Fitzgerald said the town requested that the work happen in the third week of April but rain had caused delays. The street is being repaved from Marlboro to Searsburg this summer and will continue to Bennington next year.

"We're not happy about it either," Fitzgerald said. "It's almost over."

Questions over rescheduling the project prompted Town Clerk Susie Haughwout to point out that the job was put out to bid with details that did not include overtime so it could not be done during evening hours.

"It can't be changed midstream," she said.

- Resident Jack Dolan submitted a petition related to proposed ordinance changes that would limit the use of downtown parking lots from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. during the winter.

"I think there's just got to be some way to solve the problem without throwing a blanket ban on those parking lots overnight," he said. "There's got to be a way."

The West Main Street lot is going to be made available for residents and business owners during ban hours, according to Fitzgerald. But Dolan insisted more time be taken to discuss the ordinance. Two landlords and a business owner at the meeting were also critical of the proposal.

The road commissioner will be asked whether the ban could be from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. instead.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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