Weighing in on old TVHS building


WILMINGTON -- There are many thoughts to how the Twin Valley High School building can be utilized when students leave it this summer.

"The consolidation has given us this opportunity of repurposing this building," said Wilmington School Board Chairman Phil Taylor, referring to the Twin Valley School District combining Wilmington and Whitingham students. "The Wilmington School District needs to divest itself of this property in some way. Obviously, we want to see it done in a way that enhances the downtown community, increases support and improves the downtown area. Beyond that, we don't have any grand vision for how this space could be potentially used."

The point of the project visioning session on March 19 was to gather public input on the Wilmington Community and Economic Development Center proposed to take the place of the high school.

There was momentum for a similar project 10 years ago, when Cindy Hayford and Janet Boyd were looking to create a community center known as Green Meadows. They were not successful since they could not secure a building.

Keeping the building available for Town Meeting was important to those involved in the project. Housing a wellness and health center was another well-received idea as one of the potential anchor tenants was the Deerfield Valley Health Center, which is currently looking to leave its property along Route 9 and 100. Three state agencies as well as the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union also have shown interest.

Taylor told attendees that the three core values being explored are community and economic development, flexibility and sustainabilty.

Sustainabilty was the main issue seen by the school district, business consultant Gordon Bristol and BreadLoaf Corporation Architecture Operations Manager Chris Huston. Bristol and Huston were hired as part of a Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery grant to establish the project's feasibility.

"Up to this point, we've really been driven by the sustainabilty piece. If we were to turn it over to a municipality, nonprofit or other organization, we understand that it's got to be shown that it's sustainable," added Taylor. "I don't know that taxpayers are willing to take on another tax burden or management burden. The immediate focus is on financial sustainabilty."

Over the next few months, Bristol will be looking at governance, funding sources and stakeholders for the building.

"It's been a good school but there's a reason we're closing it," he said.

As project leaders look for four or five anchor tenants, showing how revenue will cover the building's operational costs will be one of their largest tasks. After those tenants are found, community and social service organizations could begin to fill other parts of the building.

"A part of this is just business but that business is what's going to help us make the space available to other community organizations," said Taylor.

The project began in February and it is expected to run until May 31. The timeline may be extended if BreadLoaf representatives believe it is necessary.

"l'm a little concerned about the timing," said Wilmington School Director Adam Grinold. "It looks like we're going to be backed into a corner without public participation. There are some philosophical questions we could have asked before heading down the path we're on. I just want to be on the record to make sure we're not backed into that time frame. I hope we do find a way to make this financially viable. The resources from the community are going to be difficult. I think we have a challenge. It's going to need a conversation. I don't know if the current calendar is going to permit this."

The building is more than 50,000 square feet, and most people agreed that the gymnasium should remain. Approximately 6,000 to 6,500 square feet would be needed for the health and wellness section of the center. Although it is small, Huston believed the wood shop area could be used for fabrication.

Other possibilities for the building included a health center, yoga studio, physical therapy, acupuncture, cafe, state or local office use, school administrative office use, artist studios, community kitchen, mini-manufacturing and technology space.

Resident Nicki Steel was in favor of having a fitness center.

"We have many fitness centers and pools in the area. And we have very restrictive if any access to them," she said.

It is likely that the locker room will remain untouched. Huston cited the high cost of fixtures and finishes if the room was remodeled.

"They may not be used extensively but at least it's an amenity that can be used in conjunction with a fitness room," he said.

Huston also pointed out that the entry point of the building can be confusing for people who are first-time visitors. If it becomes a community center, there likely would be many first time visitors on a regular basis.

He mentioned there was concern regarding the multiple levels in the older section of the building, where the roof may begin to leak. The windows and siding in that section will also need to be addressed.

Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March asked if the building would still be used as an emergency shelter.

"That's something that's been on our minds," replied Taylor. "We've been asking that question. It comes to the whole synergy. Given the history, the way it was used during (Tropical Storm) Irene and even during ice storm, that certainly needs to be taken into consideration."

Selectboard member Jake White inquired about what entity may eventually own the building.

"The town doesn't want to own it. The school doesn't want it. Do you put it up on eBay?" he asked.

Because parts of the building were constructed using state education dollars, Bristol said the school district would have to be careful.

"If we sell it to a for-profit, we'd owe the state money," he added. "How do we capture that without losing money?"

Taylor said the school district may maintain ownership of the building and have a long-term lease. The district was advised by legal counsel that taking in revenue is "not really in the domain of a school."

"That still has to be worked out. We need to bring in lawyers and talk about the various options," he added. "We don't want to take anything away from the town in terms of current use but bring it all together."

Selectboard member Susie Haughwout mentioned her concern with housing small businesses at a reduced rate as she believed it could create conflict with the private sector market downtown. Grinold shared the same sentiment.

"I think we're trying to fill something that will pay for the building by creating losses elsewhere," he said.

Those involved in the project thought it could be an incubator building, where industrial or office spaces are rented out. But after a certain profit is gained, the business would be asked to leave.

Steel mentioned deed rights to the field that sits on the property. Several groups own rights to it.

"The fields and access to (Deerfield Valley) Farmers Fair are going to stay in full effect. We're here to serve the town or community in any way possible," said Taylor. "The key drive I think right now is get to that sustainable point where it can really work. That opens up how many community services we can offer. We're looking to get the viability of the building going and hoping other groups can come in and take over some aspects of the development or management of this."

According to Huston, the next steps in the project include looking at what tenants want to set up in the building, figuring out how many multi-purpose groups can fit and designating space.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.


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