Former Twin Valley high school sparks outside interest

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WILMINGTON — School officials are often dealing with broken windows, frozen pipes and roof issues at the former Twin Valley High School building, says Wilmington School Board member Phil Taylor

"I want to see the loose ends of consolidation tied up," said Taylor, who stepped down from the board briefly then joined again. "It's a lot of work maintaining the old building. The School Board needs to get it off its plate. It detracts from the education."

A "promising opportunity" appears to be on the horizon, according to Taylor. A developer, experienced with vacated schools and buildings, has shown interest in the old high school.

While still waiting on a proposal, the announcement came at a March 22 meeting.

"This individual does this in a lot of different areas and, from what I understand, works with a lot of other investors," Taylor told the Reformer, having heard of similar projects in Chicago and Detroit where buildings presented more of an investment liability due to infrastructure than anything else. "If you can obtain them at little or no cost and put in several million dollars, they actually become a viable for-profit endeavor."

After Wilmington and Whitingham consolidated schools to become Twin Valley, the high school in Wilmington was closed and students now go to a facility in Whitingham. Many efforts have gone into turning the building into a community center. But for now, the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union office is the building's only tenant.

Taylor said he was told the developer is "very interested" in taking on the former school and "very willing to make concessions so it's palatable for the town." And it's possible some of the previous groups that showed interest in becoming tenants when planning a potential community center at the site could still have space there.

At the same time, Taylor said, he is respectful of what the developer has in mind.

"If they're investing, it's got to be a fairly profitable endeavor," he said. "There was talk of the gym and the School Board may separate fields from the original property. It may be that Twin Valley takes possession of the fields since they use it quite a bit or the town. Either way, it will still allow (the Deerfield Valley) Farmers' Day Fair to go on. I think a memorandum of agreement acts as a deed restriction allowing the fair to be on-site. Even if it doesn't, we don't want to take anything away from the town."

Talk of creating a community center began about 10 years ago with Wilmington residents Janet Boyd and Cindy Hayford wanting to turn a vacated private school into one. Plans fell through due to zoning and state permitting issues, Taylor said. But the idea kept creeping back up, especially during meetings and in studies following Tropical Storm Irene.

One of the recent challenges, Taylor said, is Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's "switching their focus" for health office relocation. Previously, they wanted space at the old school. But now, the group seems more interested in the former Town Garage site, which could be problematic given a town committee tasked with finding new space for the police and fire departments also has its eye on the property.

"I don't necessarily think by any means it's a given that the property's going to be given to the health center. I think they've pulled back a little looking at the old high school," said Taylor. "We've instructed the developer to speak with them and see if it's viable for them to be located back in the old high school building. My feeling is a lot needs to be discussed by the townspeople before a decision like that can go forward."

Taylor acknowledges the situation hasn't been easy as the School Board is not really a group built to handle real estate issues.

"All I can do right now is get as much information together and take it to the two boards, the Wilmington School Board and Select Board, then figure out the next steps from there," he said.

A study from Bread Loaf Corporation was completed nearly two years ago. The ongoing operating and maintenance costs looked "fairly considerable," Taylor said. Plus, a new boiler and new roof would be needed and an older section of the building is in disrepair.

To address the financial viability of the project, the Select Board ordered another study be done. The engineering group Stevens and Associates, of Brattleboro, was hired for the job. That report is on the agenda for Wednesday night's Select Board meeting.

"Even if it says, 'We think it's financially viable,' it's probably going to mean a certain amount of investment on behalf of the town into the infrastructure," said Taylor. "Given where the town is with the fire and police station relocation and getting them out of the flood zone, there's a lot of infrastructure projects on Wilmington's plate. I think the general feeling is unless it comes out self sufficient or pretty close to it, it's going to be a tough sell."

The next steps will include taking a proposal and the Stevens study to the Old School Enrichment Committee and a working group, which includes two Select Board and two School Board members, then figuring out how to approach the public.

"But certainly, we're going to have to come up with some fairly solid ideas and present them to Wilmington voters to get feedback and make sure we have something that if this developer turns out to be a real viable opportunity then we can transfer the property to him and hopefully we'll get the best of both worlds," said Taylor.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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