Fate of former Wilmington school to be decided soon


WILMINGTON >> The former Twin Valley High School building will be taken off the Wilmington School District's hands whether or not a group or developer purchases it.

The Wilmington School Board is currently getting quotes for demolishing the building but it's also waiting to hear from the Old School Enrichment Committee.

"We are optimistic we'll have a proposal from OSEC in the next coming weeks," Wilmington School Board Chairman Adam Grinold told the Select Board on Wednesday.

The building is no longer serving as a school after Wilmington and Whitingham consolidated schools. Graduation for the Class of 2014 marked the end of education there. The Twin Valley Middle High School is now located in Whitingham. The Windham Southwest Supervisory Union's central office is the only tenant of the former school building. Various groups have shown an interest in occupying rooms in a community-center model.

Two months ago, OSEC asked the School Board for a two-month window to develop a proposal on taking over the school building. The board approved the request but also felt that it "needed to have parallel pursuits," Grinold said, referring to demolition of the structure or marketing of the property.

The School Board wants to see a plan from OSEC by Oct. 25. Time is running out for the Select Board, too, if the town has any interest in purchasing the building.

"We want to make sure that we have come, officially and openly, and said that the building's available. I think everyone in the room understood that already. But just to make sure that was out there in the public domain, we're saying that tonight," Grinold said. "Hopefully there's a way where the school's no longer in possession of that building and can get behind another organization that owns it."

Wilmington voters approved an article in July that gave the Wilmington School District authority to divest itself of the property. Back then, school officials had been in talks with a private developer. A request for proposals was issued but the developer never submitted one and a plan from a different developer was rejected.

Demolition of the building is not favored by any member of the School Board, according to Grinold.

OSEC member Steve Goldfarb said his group has met with some newer parties interested in sharing space in the building. He asked if the Select Board had any thoughts on keeping the emergency shelter at the old school or moving town offices there.

The latter had been explored in one option featured in the study conducted by Stevens & Associates. An approximately $5 million price tag for renovation left Select Board members skeptical of the project.

"I'll ask the question. Who's going to be the developer?" Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon said. "You know it's possible that the town could take some of the space in there. But for me, my concern would be do we have a professional developer who's going to come in here and develop this property? Do we have a professional property management company that's going to come in and manage the property? I mean, those are the types of questions that I think the town needs answers to before it can even consider space in the building."

Knowing the town's position would be helpful in determining "what level of expertise" would be needed for the project, Goldfarb said.

OSEC member Cindy Hayford said an architect would be hired for a design.

"The volunteers would not be the management," Hayford said. "One of the partners that we've been talking with does do property management. That hasn't been finalized. So as we do our business plan, it would be helpful to know if there is any intent from the town to use the space."

Hayford said her group would be looking for planning and implementation grants. She also asked the Select Board whether decisions would be going to voters.

Select Board Chairman Tom Fitzgerald said space at the school for the emergency shelter would still be needed. He mentioned a talk occurring on Friday with "all major parties" but worried about the financing.

"We could make all kinds of plans to move up there and then have OSEC go belly up on us. Then what do we do?" Fitzgerald said. "There's a number of issues that are involved here."

After Tropical Storm Irene in 2012, a Federal Emergency Management Agency study indicated that the town should move its offices out of the flood zone. Regarding relocation to the former school, Fitzgerald said, "It's the affordable building factor."

Gannon agreed, saying the project needs to be "financially viable."

"We are trying to be good fiduciaries of taxpayer money," he said. "My struggle here is we're being asked to go into a project where we have no idea what the potential cost to the town is, what the overall cost is going to be. If it does fail, it probably goes to tax sale and we're stuck with it."

Gannon was responding to questions from Nicki Steel, a proponent of establishing a community center.

"Sometimes, things come about because people say, 'Let's find a way,'" said Steel.

Grinold said he was excited about the prospect of another organization taking over ownership of the building. Opportunities around funding would be more readily available to a nonprofit.

"I would hate for everyone to leave here thinking the only way this works is if the town is a tenant," Grinold said. "There's probably alternatives out there being explored that don't require municipal taxpayer dollars to drive this project. I'm optimistic this is a scenario."

The state's rules on closed schools have often made local officials scratch their heads.

"Currently, our students can't use the facility when they're playing on the field. They can't go into that building because it's a school property," Grinold said. "When we sell the building we can then pay someone else rent and the students are allowed to use the rest rooms."

Schools in the Twin Valley system combined before Act 46, the law mandating consolidation of school districts around the state. Wilmington and Whitingham residents are expecting to vote on consolidating districts soon.

A merger plan with other school districts in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union was recently rejected by the Vermont Agency of Education. More information on why the proposal was best for students and districts involved was requested.

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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