BENNINGTON — Efforts to redevelop the former Bennington High School building for housing and municipal uses generated both positive and some negative comments this week.
The Select Board on Monday approved an application for $1 million in Community Development Block Grant funding toward the project, which was requested by local developer Hale Resources. The firm plans to create 37 housing units in the historic, 110-year-old structure at 650 Main St.
The federal funding is awarded through the state to municipalities, necessitating formal town approval for the application, which is due by April 11. Awards in the grant program are expected to be announced in June.
In partnership with Hale Resources, the town proposes renovating and using about 30 percent of the 100,000-square-foot building for recreation and senior citizen programming and to provide space for nonprofit groups, like Meals on Wheels.
Hale, which plans to purchase the former school, proposes creating 15 affordable housing units and 22 units that could be rented at market rates, although some rate restrictions might apply after the first seven years of operation.
Those units would encompass about 70 percent of the floor space.
CHILD CARE PLAN
During the application hearing, Zak Hale, partner and CEO of the company, also described a newly solidified proposed use for space in the building — a child care center with up to 66 slots.
He said the center would be in a basement area of the school that served as classroom space for Bennington High School for many years.
Hale added in an interview Wednesday that the plan was included in the overall design about a month ago but had been discussed in the past as an option for a redeveloped Benn Hi.
He said a conceptual design is being prepared, and it is based on a similar facility the Berkshire Family YMCA operates in the basement of its building in downtown Pittsfield, Mass.
That child care space was created during a recent $12.4 million renovation of the city’s YMCA headquarters building in the city.
The YMCA, which also operates the Recreation Center programming here under a contract with the town, would be expected to oversee the child care center in Bennington as well, Hale said.
He added that photos of the Pittsfield child care facility — both before and after renovations — will be made available for the next scheduled Select Board update on the Benn Hi project on April 24.
Resident Nancy White, a persistent critic of the proposal over cost, parking and other issues, said Monday she would like to hear whether Hale Resources will definitely purchase the Benn Hi building.
Town Planning Director Daniel Monks responded, “That is the plan,” and Monks said he doubts that aspect of the project will change.
Hale underscored that on Wednesday.
“We’re going to purchase it,” he said, adding that the project “needs to happen, and we are committed to it.”
Hale said the plan is for the town to transfer its option to purchase from the private owner, Christopher Gilbert, to his firm, so a sale can be completed.
CITIZEN MEETING SET
White also raised questions Monday about creating a child care facility in a basement area, which could raise safety issues about egress in an emergency.
Hale Resources founder Jon Hale said the space has above-ground level windows and that building code exit and security requirements — which he said are even more stringent when children are involved — will be designed into the facility plan.
During the board meeting, White likewise reiterated her contention that the Select Board in recent years has routinely withheld important information from the public when projects were being discussed until after decisions were made.
“Some officials and others have decided they really don’t want Bennington residents to have a say in our town anymore,” White said.
She added, “Over the past month, I have been contacted by several Bennington residents seeking more information and details about projects, programs and plans going on for Bennington, that I’ve talked about at public meetings that officials don’t want to talk about.”
As a result, White said, she plans to hold a public meeting at the Bennington Free Library on April 18 at 6 p.m.
All are invited, she said, and she expects the session to last about an hour and will respond to questions concerning town proposals.
White said she is paying to rent one of the rooms for the evening, and the library is not a sponsor.
She added that citizens need to begin to work in groups to “get accurate information out to the public.”
Board members have denied that they are making decisions behind closed doors, saying that presentations on each project is held during public meetings, and there are periodic updates. Information also is posted on the town website.
The high school, which opened in 1913 and closed with the opening of Mount Anthony Union High School in 1968, was later used as a middle school until the opening of the Mount Anthony Union Middle School in 2004.
The building is now owned by Gilbert, a resident of Dorset and Red Hook, N.Y., who bought the property in 2020 after it was largely vacant for about a decade.
The town has an ongoing lease-to-own agreement with Gilbert, but also has an option to terminate the agreement if the Select Board determines the redevelopment plan is not feasible.
The board has committed $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding the town received to renovation of the portion of the building to be renovated for the town programs — provided all other sources of project funding are in place.
Hale is expected to fund the housing portion of the project. Grants, tax credits and private financing or donations will be sought as part of the financing package, and the Select Board has said the expectation is that no further town investment will be required, except for maintenance of the municipal spaces.