BRATTLEBORO — While what may go on in the Arch Street building recently acquired by the neighboring museum is still largely up in the air, its impact to the downtown will be undeniable.
"Certainly for me, and I think I speak for everyone here at the museum involved in making this decision, what makes this exciting is not the prospect of improving the museum but making a real improvement to downtown Brattleboro," said Danny Litchenfield, Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's director. "We just figure that anything positive or useful we can do in there is going to be a big step for us."
The boarded-up historic industrial building and neglected property that sits along the Whetstone Brook at 11 Arch Street was sold to the museum on Dec. 11 for $1 after not being in use for 10 to 15 years. Green Mountain Power was its last owner.
The acquisition pretty much doubles the space available to the museum's programming. The main floor of its current space, where the galleries are located, is between 5,000 and 6,000 square feet while the Arch Street building is 4,500 square feet.
The new property also includes space where people are parking informally, Litchenfield said, suggesting a new structure could be built on site if it made sense. And it wouldn't be without considering history; the lot was formally a building connected with others going up Main Street.
Out his office window, Litchenfield can see the building plus another one.
"For the longest time we looked at the Archery Building and said, 'It's a shame that's sitting here boarded up. Wouldn't it be great if we could get a hold of it?' But that building's owned by the town," he said. "And it's complicated with that property. The town isn't sure what it wants do. Eventually, we stopped thinking about it."
Shortly after giving up on the Archery Building, Litchenfield was eating a meal with an artist at the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery. The artist, seeing potential at the Arch Street building, thought it could serve as an artists' studio.
The idea prompted Litchenfield to look into the building and he discovered the power company was not interested in owning it. They had acquired the property through a merger years ago.
The cheap price gave Litchenfield reason to "pause and wonder" whether the museum should buy the building.
"We felt like we really needed to investigate what the condition is of this building and the property, and make sure we're not getting into something that would be a burden without enough upside," said Litchenfield, who provided the Reformer with a 766-page document detailing an environmental site assessment and explained his hopes that an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup grant will assist in the next part.
"We have to do about $240,000 of environmental cleanup. When the number was first presented it seemed big. But after talking to all the various people in Brattleboro and in the state who are familiar with these kinds of (industrial building) projects, as far as they're concerned, this represents a very manageable project."
A year and a half was spent completing assessments associated with potential contaminants before closing on the property while officials at the museum pondered the possibilities of what they could do with the property. Ultimately, Litchenfield said they felt like the risks were manageable.
The building was in surprisingly good shape, he said, and it could serve a purpose for the community. Ideas include expanding the BMAC's current operations by offering more gallery and performance space; setting up classrooms for art activities; and developing an artist residency program. Input will be solicited as the project moves forward.
"It's wide open right now with what we might do," said Litchenfield. "We're going to be working on this over the next few months."
He expects to hear about the EPA grant by the spring. But the project is not dependent on that funding. Money for moving forward can be found somewhere else, he said, if need be.