Breadloaf architect Chris Huston gave residents an idea of some of the challenges to reuse of the building. Approaching the building from School Street, for instance, the location of the main entrance isn’t immediately clear. The exterior of the 1900 building, Huston said, needs work including new windows and the siding may need some repair. He noted that the multiple levels meant “challenges” like roof leaks. But he said the challenges could be overcome.
Huston said there were a number of possible uses that would be appropriate for the building. A committee of community members has already identified at least two “anchor” tenants for the building, the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s Deerfield Valley Campus and the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union. Huston said one of the goals would be to cluster similar services, so potential tenants such as physical therapy, acupuncture, or a yoga studio might be co-located with the health center. State or local offices could be located near the supervisory union.
Other possibilities include a café, a community kitchen, and artists’ studios in the 1900 section of the building. Huston said the current woodshop could be used as a small fabrication or manufacturing shop, and the school’s state-of-the-art Internet connection should be developed for technology-based business.
Huston said some uses that have been proposed were studied and rejected, including the possibility of locating emergency services at the former school. “We’re wrapping up a study of a consolidated police and fire facility,” Huston said. “One of the questions was could those functions work here. The simplest answer is, look at the constraints of the site. Topographically, the fire department needs quick access and egress unencumbered by other vehicles. The police department requires less space, but they have incoming suspects that should be kept away from the community center.”
When Huston opened the discussion up to the public, Nicki Steel said she’d like to have a fitness center at the location. “It could be relatively self-sustaining or provide some income even with low membership fees.”
Huston said a fitness center could work on the first floor, given the floor plan and the slab floor.
Recalling her work on the proposed Green Meadows community center with Janet Boyd, Cindy Hayford said one of their goals was to have a multigenerational presence at the center. One of the ways to get the youngest people into the center was to hold after-school programs there, she said.
“Having a wide range of functions and ages is vital to having a successful community center,” agreed Huston.
Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March noted that the school was the community’s emergency center, and asked how that use would dovetail with the proposed uses. “There’s been a demonstrated need for the emergency center in the past and, although you hate to think about it, there will probably be a need in the future,” March said.
Wilmington School Board Chair Phil Taylor said the committee has been asking the same question. “Given the history of the way it was used during Irene, that needs to be taken into consideration,” he said. “It’s a necessary use, and I would say we’ll continue to look to find a way to make that happen.
Wilmington Town Clerk Susan Haughwout asked if continued use of the facility for elections and Town Meeting was “on the radar.” Taylor said it was, and that storage for election materials and equipment was also in the plan. “There’s no storage at the town hall, so that would be nice,” said Haughwout.
Haughwout also asked if the building would be air-conditioned. “There’s a lot of talk about moving some of the town offices here, and records storage requires a stable environment,” she said.
Taylor said the health center would likely have its own air-conditioning system. Other areas of the building may be air-conditioned depending on the tenants.
Other suggestions included classrooms for continuing education, distance learning, and other community educational opportunities, as well as incubator space for business startups.
Wilmington Selectboard member Jake White, noting that neither the town nor the school district wants to own and operate the building, asked how the building would be administered. Gordon Bristol, who serves as clerk of the works for both Twin Valley school construction projects, said there are nuances to the cost and funding of the center. “We have to look at what we owe the state if we change any of the uses,” Bristol said. “Construction of the school was funded at some point with state education dollars. So we couldn’t sell it as a profit-making company. That’s something I’ve been tasked with looking into.”
“It may be that the building remains owned by the school and gets leased long term,” said Taylor.
Haughwout said she was concerned about offering business space at a reduced rate, competing with downtown landlords. “The private market downtown could be destroyed,” she said.
Bristol agreed. “Typically what you would do in an incubator space is get ‘em up, and get ‘em out. It’s important to have a strategy to get (startups) out.”
Taylor said he believed that part of the building should be used for economic development. “Whether it’s an incubator or whatever,” he said, “I’d like to see us working closely with the town economic development person so the plan becomes more targeted and effective.”
Wrapping things up, Taylor told community members that the committee’s strategy, working with Breadloaf, is to develop a plan for a center that won’t place any burden on taxpayers, and will meet community needs. “Right now our key goal is to find out if this is sustainable,” he said. “If it’s not, then the whole thing is a non-issue. If we can prove sustainability, it opens so many doors. When we get the anchor tenants in there, then we can get the nonprofit groups and community service organizations in there.”