new town halllll

Images of the new town office building planned in Pownal. Officials say the project is on track after the original building contractor bowed out of the long-delayed project in April.

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POWNAL — After another setback, Pownal officials say the new town office project is again moving forward toward substantial completion this year.

The Select Board announced at an April 22 meeting that the original contractor, Messina Builders, had bowed out of the extensively delayed project, which initially was expected to break ground by early 2020, and that efforts were underway to find a replacement.

A new contractor, Aaron Gilbert of Pownal, is now on board, according to board liaison Rebecca Dragon. She added this week that the overall project costs will remain the same as the figures approved by voters this spring at town meeting, and financing and construction details are essentially the same.

Voters on March 30 approved the $865,000 office project. The funding plan calls for a $600,000 bond, using $175,000 in a town office building fund, and $90,000 from undesignated surplus funds in the budget.

The new structure will replace the cramped town office building on an adjacent Center Street lot.

TIMELINE HOLDING

Dragon and board member Michael Gardner, who are part of the project management team, said town attorney Robert Fisher had advised that no new bids would legally be required if the cost did not exceed the original contractor estimate.

Gilbert was selected after town officials discussed the problem with several local contractors.

Dragon said a key aspect of the project is that the town is acting as the general contractor and project coordinator for construction of the new town office building, which includes moving a historic, circa-1840s schoolhouse building from North Pownal Road to the site and adding two modular sections.

“It was perfectly legal to get a new builder as a ‘change of service’ for an already approved project,” Dragon said. “Updating the builder of record with the state is an administrative task … It only changes the name on the permits.”

The changes were approved “with the advice and support of town counsel,” she said.

The modular sections of the new offices are being constructed by Preferred Building Systems, and Dragon said a down payment has secured the services of the New Hampshire-based company. That payment locked in the cost estimate for that part of the project.

NEW BUILDER

“Aaron Gilbert is the new builder,” Dragon said in an email. “He is working with Eric Marceau. They are not general contractors, but builders. The town is acting as [general contractor] project coordinator.”

“The set date for the modular portion [to arrive] is August 31,” she said. “That is when the builders and other [contractors] really get going.”

Dragon said she didn’t yet have a list of subcontractors to the builder, but the excavation contractor, who will also move the schoolhouse to the site, is known.

“[There’s] no list of [subcontractors] presently,” she said. “Right now, I can say that Mike Connors is doing the excavation and building moving.”

Quotes for the foundation work are being sought, Dragon said, adding that a change to a more traditional foundation is expected to cost less than the original estimate for a foundation with the same footprint.

“The original foundation plan was a very new-ish/innovative plan that not many foundation contractors know how to pour/build, she said. “It is also extremely expensive.”

“It was an incredibly simple change, and is already approved at the state level (the whole process took about a week),” she added. “We will keep the same heat/energy efficiency rating as well.”

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COSTS THE SAME

Dragon said prices for the project have remained stable.

“I had promises to hold for excavation, building moving, plumbing, and electric. Materials are obviously always variable, but most of the materials go into the modular, and those prices were held because we made the down payment,” Dragon said.

At this point, she said, “we don’t see going over budget, especially with changing to a traditional foundation which lowered our cost.”

No delays in the project timeline are expected, Dragon said.

“We are making a timeline with the excavator. [Gardner] has been speaking with our foundation folks, and delivery and ‘set date’ of the modular building is August 31,” she said. “Once the building is ‘set,’ it moves very, very quickly.”

All previously issued project permits remain intact, Dragon said. “We have interim financing secured and ready to draw from May 14. No changes.”

The town had planned to borrow short term to move the project along this spring and summer and to pay off that loan when the bond funding is released, which is expected in July. The short-term loan and bond financing plan has remained in place, Dragon said.

‘RUMORS’ ADDRESSED

Dragon also wanted to address “rumors” she said have been circulating in town. One concerned why Messina Builders left the project.

“You would need to ask Messina Builders that question,” she said, “but what he relayed to me was that he already had the season booked with other clients and didn’t want to do the project anymore.”

Messina Builders could not be reached Monday for comment.

The project, which was approved by voters in the fall of 2019, and was expected to have a groundbreaking that year or in spring 2020, was considerably delayed during the permitting process. By December 2020, the Select Board began discussing the need to hold a second bond vote because construction costs had increased.

In March, the town sought and obtained voter approval to bond for the original $600,000 amount, and use money in the town office fund and from undesignated surplus funds in the budget to meet the overall cost.

Dragon also said it has been incorrectly rumored that Gardner would become the general contractor.

“Another rumor that is going around is that it is a conflict of interest for Mike Gardner to act as [general contractor] on the project as [he is also] the zoning administrator,” she said. “This is also completely untrue. Mike is not being paid to be a GC on the project. He is a participating member in the project management team, which consists of Tim [Darter, the town executive assistant], myself, and the builders. Each of us have aspects of the project that we are taking lead on organizing.”

Gardner’s project management team role “has not changed at all, and had nothing to do with Messina no longer working the project,” she said. “Mike was always going to be the authorizing member of the Select Board on the project, and Tim and I were project managing.”

She added that “the local zoning administrator does nothing with new construction at this point. He didn’t even approve the local permit. He merely processed it. The [Development Review Board] approved the permit.”

Gardner could not be reached this week for comment on the project.

“Lastly,” Dragon said of the delays and abrupt project changes, “it is my hope that the public will understand that it is not in having a perfect process with no roadblocks or needed changes as things go along that means the project is going well. It is how the team/town handles any issues as they arise.”

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three NENI newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican and the former North Adams Transcript.


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