Bellows Falls >> A group of disgruntled townspeople met Wednesday night to address their continued concerns with the proposed Liberty Mill Justice Center.
Suzanne Groenewald of Rockingham and Deborah Wright of Bellows Falls conducted the meeting on Feb. 24 in which they discussed recent updates about the detention center that Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark has proposed to build in town.
"My concern is for our community, the one I fell in love with when I moved here and then I raised my children in," said Groenewald. "So I have taken it upon myself to make this particular issue something that I'm fighting to stop the Liberty Mill Justice Center from coming into our community."
The Liberty Mill Justice Center, proposed by Clark, is a multimillion-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility that would be located at the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building. The space will hold 155 beds — 120 secured for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program. The two-story building would be "building secure" rather than "site secure," which means no barbed fencing, guard tower, floodlights or large open spaces surrounding the building. Instead, security would be held within all or a portion of the building.
First, Groenewald read a two-page executive summary of the structural analysis of the building that was conducted by Stevens & Associates Engineering. The report detailed observations and recommendations of the existing buildings to determine the feasibility of a future use of a detention and resource center for the Windham County Sheriff's department. The report was based on two site visits at 204 Papermill Road, the location of the three-story building that was constructed in the 1920s.
The report revealed that the building has been extensively damaged by water and will require remediation before any work can begin.
According to the summary, "the existing structure is in fair condition but deteriorating due to exposure to water. ... Water migration throughout the building has caused structural deficiencies at the south end of the building and along the western elevation. Temporarily enclosing the building, removing all standing water, and reconnecting all of the roof drains are recommended to stabilize the building."
The summary also noted that the building has been extensively vandalized. Despite the amount of work it may take to refurbish, Clark has not signified that this location is off the table, however he has stated that he looking at other locations which he will not name at this time. Clark also denied several requests to release the entire structural analysis conducted by Stevens and Associates.
"It (the structural analysis) sounds pretty bad, but it doesn't sound like it's dead in the water," said Groenewald.
Groenewald also noted that Clark is waiting for a $250,000 USDA grant, for the start-up of the project that is tied specifically to the former Chemo site. Residents and Clark have posed the question of whether that grant would still come through if he chose an alternate location, but no one has come forth and said they have a definitive answer.
"There have been quiet waters in the sheriff's department, we haven't heard a thing since this report being out and we kind of had to beg to get this summary,' said Groenewald.
The meeting facilitators were not the only individuals who continued to take the floor at Wednesday's meeting; so did members of Rockingham for Progress, a newly formed citizens' group that is calling for creative, adaptive reuse of the town's empty paper mill and for changes to the town's zoning regulations. RFP member Merritt Schnipper, who is also a litigation attorney, spoke up as to what he feels is Clark's focus.
"I think the sheriff is focused on that building a lot, but when I read this little excerpt, he's really focused on this town and the reason he's focused on this town is because the town has the highest level of grant money available of any of the town's available in the county because of it's poverty," said Schnipper. "While this is unfortunate, it now gives us the opportunity to have more development funds available for all sorts of things."
Schipper made a joke that those "things" would ideally not be prisons.
Another RFP member, Doug Anarino, a software engineer in Bellows Falls, added that citizens should also be concerned if the project moves to a nearby town because he said it would affect them in Bellows Falls.
"Springfield's a big town and really far away, but we're still getting a lot of their people, so we should be concerned, really, anywhere around here," said Anarino.
A gentleman in the audience shouted out that he would like to know what is the definition of "an area" for this project because he felt there is not a short distance from the Chemco building to residences.
"I would consider that a densely populated area. I wonder how big of an area they are talking about," he said.
RFP members noted that their website, rockinghamforprogress.org, offers a chance for anyone to vote on their favorite alternate idea of how the building could be used. So far there have been 80 votes and the top four ideas are a maker space, which would be an open-source manufacturing center offering public access to 3D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment as well as training, startup incubation, etc. similar to Generator up in Burlington; a Recreation Center/Water Park which would include boat docking, piers, fishing, jogging trail, dog park, skateboard park, water slide, bicycle pump track; and then a combined Community Outreach Center.
Though the building has not been properly occupied for at least 20 years, now ideas are floating around as to how it could be used.
In addition three Selectboard terms will expire this March for Thomas MacPhee (Selectboard Chair), Susan Hammond (Selectboard Vice-Chair) and Ann DiBernardo. At the Wednesday's meeting three
Three candidates running for the Selectboard in the March election were also at Wednesday's meeting – Lamont Barnet, Cass Wright and Steven Adams – and voiced their opinions about the proposed justice center.
Lamont emphasized that if he were elected he would look to withdraw municipal support for the proposed justice center, because he believes this would curtail further progress of the project in town. Wright said that he felt the detention center is not in Vermont's best interest let alone, Bellow Falls'.
"I'm against the prison, obviously, I'm against a merger, I'm against tearing down anymore historical buildings that any future generations might look back on and say, 'hey where did that go?" said Wright. "As far as the Chemco building, I think we need a hard price review of what it cost to tear it down – if it we so decide – or what an overbuild will cost to repurpose it, wherever that money comes from, we got to hear the figures.'
There are three other candidates running also: Stefan Golec (incumbent), and two new candidates Charles Thurston and Steven Adams. Sue Hammond and Ann DiBernardo will also run again.
Wright said she will be at Town Meeting to say, "point of order," when article number two is announced, which is regarding the proposed justice center. Wright said that will then allow an opportunity for members to voice their reasons against the project.
The legal voters of the Town of Rockingham and Town of Rockingham School District can meet at the Town Hall Auditorium (Bellows Falls Opera House) on Feb. 29 at 7 p.m.,, and then to adjourn to the Masonic Temple (61 Westminster Street) at 9 a.m. on March 1.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275.