Put the fate of former school building to a vote

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A volunteer non-profit group in Wilmington is making a noble effort to reclaim a vital community resource that was lost when the Twin Valley School system consolidated from three buildings down to two.

The Old School Enrichment Council was formed with the goal of taking ownership of the former Twin Valley High School building and renovating it to expand recreation, educational opportunities and senior activities in town, and create a community room with a kitchen and studios and galleries for artists. 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.

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. We can appreciate their passion for this project. The former high school has always been more than just a building to this town. At one time it was a key community gathering spot where families came for countless school functions; it served as the central command center for emergency services and a community shelter in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene; and it has been used for numerous nonprofit and community functions over the years. Today, with the exception of administrative offices for the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union and a few games of basketball or pickleball in the gymnasium, most of the 52,000-square-foot building is vacant and unused.

That seems like a tremendous waste of space, but there is a reason for that — the building needs a lot of work. In fact, that was one of the deciding factors for closing the building as a school.

Select Board member Vince Rice raised a legitimate concern when he said the building was way past the point of "diminishing return."

"The School Board has had 40-plus years of ignoring, neglecting and just blowing it off," he said at a recent meeting. "At one point, they were concerned about the safety of the children ... Why is it suddenly more safe now?"

Advocates say it will be safe with necessary renovations. But the Select Board has other valid concerns: How much will it cost and who will pay for it? Two studies of the school's reuse — one for a "community and economic development center" and another that included relocation of town offices to the site — pondered renovation prices as high as $4.5 million. Those costs apparently kept buyers at bay. The town voted last year to give the Wilmington School Board the authority to sell the structure, but a potential purchase bid dissolved.

The Old School Enrichment Council remains committed to the project, however, and has the backing of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, which named the community center idea as one of Windham County's 14 most "vital projects."

One proposal under consideration involves about $450,000 in renovations plus roughly $300,000 for demolition of the oldest portion of the school, thus making the space more manageable. More recently, OSEC estimated that the building will need less than $600,000 to make the space attractive to tenants, but as much as $2.2 million will be necessary in the long term.

So far, OSEC has only limited start-up funds, including $13,500 donated by the non-profit Wilmington Fund, $12,500 from a donation campaign, and $6,000 from a farm-to-table fundraiser. The group plans to apply for a slew of local, state and federal grants to fund most of the project, but of course none of that funding is guaranteed as of yet.

An agreement to buy the building for $1 is currently on the table. Part of the agreement calls for the school district to pay $60,000 in annual fees to OSEC. The group is expecting to ask the towns of Wilmington and Whitingham to contribute another $60,000 each year. Plus, in recent weeks the organization has been trying to secure $98,000 from the town's 1-percent option tax fund to help with an initial set of renovations.

So far, however, the Wilmington Select Board seems reluctant to throw any financial support behind the proposal. For the immediate term, board members have maintained that the project is not yet eligible for funding because the building is not yet owned by the group. And the requested figure could not be approved by the board because it was over 20 percent of the fund's balance. Any application over that amount is supposed to go to voters.

The board also has some deeper underlying concerns, however.

"I just don't want to be the bank for this, knowing what projects we have pending in this community that are overwhelming," Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald said. "We have so much to deal with ... We have so many big, big capital projects we're facing."

In the meantime, taxpayers continue to foot the bill to maintain the building. Although its use is limited, the entire structure must be heated to prevent sprinkler systems and pipes from freezing. A study released last year said that, in fiscal year 2015, the building's operating expenses were approximately $136,000. So either way, the town needs to be on "the path to do something," as Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon said, adding, "We either need to decide that it is not a livable building or decide if it can be turned into a community center or something."

Unfortunately, the situation right now appears to be a classic Catch 22: OSEC wants to show it has the town's backing when it submits its grant applications, but the town wants some assurances that OSEC has the funding it needs without continually dipping into town funds.

The best path moving forward, as Gannon also suggested, would be to put the entire proposal to a town vote so the Select Board can act accordingly.

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