Arlington to seek planning funds for church's reuse

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ARLINGTON — The Select Board has taken a step toward applying for a state grant to study the potential redevelopment of the former St. Margaret Mary Church property on Route 7A.

If awarded through the Vermont Community Development Program, the planning grant — potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars—would be used to explore the feasibility of adapting the mid-century complex to accommodate a variety of uses. Grant funds could also be used for generating marketing, architectural and engineering plans.

As currently envisioned, the property's former church building would be converted to performing arts space, the rectory to office space, and the former "parish hall" behind the church to a fitness center with squash courts, former Vermont State Police Col. James Baker, representing the Arlington Area Renewal Project, told the board at its July 29 meeting.

The church still owns the property, but Roger Cooper, a retired banker, holds a contract to purchase it, Baker said.

Baker floated the possibility of one or more nonprofits, including the Arlington Arts and Enrichment Program, which has long served the community, running programs at the complex and private investors addressing its capital needs.

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The Rev. Tom Mattison, pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Manchester, who is overseeing the transaction for the church, declined to discuss terms of the contract and said no closing date has been scheduled. Cooper couldn't be reached for comment.

The Renewal Project has hired grant writer BeBe Bullock to assemble the application for state funds, Baker said. Holmes King Kallquist & Associates, a Syracuse, New York-based firm, has produced architectural drawings pro bono for the application, according to Elizabeth Berger, an owner of the Arlington Inn and member of a group assisting Bullock with the application.

The longer the approximately one-acre site sits vacant, "I think the town runs the risk of something very adverse happening there," said Baker, who invoked the specter of a gas station or auto-repair business setting up shop at the prominent location. The Renewal Project became involved in the redevelopment effort to protect the town's interests, Baker said.

State Rep. and Select Board member Cynthia Browning affirmed the parcel's importance to the town but questioned the viability of the concept, which she called "extremely ambitious."

The board voted unanimously at the July meeting to authorize the town to apply for the grant but included a condition, at Browning's suggestion, that the board be allowed to review the completed application and give final approval before its submittal in September.

If the town wins the state grant, for which only municipalities are eligible, it essentially would serve as a custodian of the funds, though its involvement would likely be "pretty minimal," Select Board Chairman Keith Squires said. No town tax dollars have been committed to the effort.


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