The town was recently awarded a $52,600 federal disaster recovery community development block grant (CDBGDR) for a feasibility study to help determine the best use of the building. Wilmington will match the federal grant with $5,260, or 10% of the project cost.
Although some are already calling the future facility a “community center,” Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy says the outcome is still up in the air. “A community center would be great,” he says, “but the feasibility study will determine what it can become, and whether it can be self-sufficient.”
A committee that includes Steve Goldfarb, who headed up a community center committee for FEMA’s long-term recovery planning process; Wilmington Economic Development Consultant Gretchen Havreluk; school board chair Phil Taylor; Cammie Swanson; and Murphy recently sent out a request for proposal. Although the bid hasn’t been officially awarded, Murphy says Breadloaf Corporation, of Middlebury, was the only company that turned in a bid. Murphy says Gordon Bristol, who also serves as Twin Valley’s clerk of the works for their school construction projects, will also be hired under the grant to work with Breadloaf on the study.
Murphy says there are a number of basic questions that have to be answered before a decision can be made on the future of the building. “Part of the building is very old, part of it is less old,” he says. “Whether the very old part can still be used economically is a big question.”
Both Murphy and Taylor say any use of the building must be self-supporting, must provide for public use of facilities like the gymnasium, and can’t infringe on the use of athletic fields or Deerfield Valley Farmers’ Day Fair facilities.
Where self-sufficiency is concerned, the good news is that there are already at least two paying tenants who are chomping at the bit to get into the building – Southwestern Vermont Healthcare and Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. Both, according to Taylor, have outgrown their current space and are looking for more elbow room.
Taylor says the study will include public meetings to take input on the future of the facility, but during consolidation discussions and during recovery planning after Tropical Storm Irene the public weighed in on the issue. “The thing that keeps coming back is a community center,” Taylor said. “The direction we are heading now is to study the feasibility of it. If, at the end of the day, a community center doesn’t pay the bills, then what can we get in there to pay the bills to support a community center in a way that doesn’t put a burden on the taxpayers.”
At a recent Wilmington School Board meeting, Taylor said the committee has looked at many of the same things that Janet Boyd and Cindy Hayford proposed in their bid to create a community center at the former Green Meadows School on Stowe Hill. That proposal was shot down, but the need for community services remains, Taylor said. “All the work that Janet and Cindy did was lost when the community center fell through, but this project is picking it up. They had three dozen different agencies looking for space so they could be here a couple of days a week; when we called them up they said ‘Yeah, we’re still interested.’”
Taylor says the facility can be part health center, part community center, and part economic development engine for Wilmington’s downtown. For the past several years, discussion of economic development has included mention of a small business incubator – space for budding businesses. Taylor said the former high school may be able to offer the best Internet access in the valley. “We’re pursuing the economic development piece, taking advantage of the server and broadband we have there. It would be perfect for light industry and technology.”
Ownership and governance is another question the feasibility study will help answer. Taylor said the goal has been to divest the school district of the property while ensuring it will be used for the benefit of the community. Under state statutes, neither the town nor the school district can operate a profit-making business. That may mean it will be necessary to transfer ownership to an existing entity, or create an entity to take ownership. “How it’s going to be operated is a big question,” Taylor said. “Having a committee run something like that doesn’t always work. We have to be realistic and practical, and figure out how to manage the building effectively.”