BRATTLEBORO — As the town starts to transfer ownership of Union Station to Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, museum director Danny Lichtenfeld is calling it “the right thing for the museum.”
“I think it’s a good step for the museum to take and I think it’s a really good thing for the town because the town took on an obligation 50 years ago in order for this historic building not to get torn down, but it has been a significant obligation to the town and expense,” he said Wednesday.
The current agreement calls for the museum to pay the town $1 annually for 21 years. A new purchase and sale agreement being considered by the Select Board would put Union Station in the hands of the museum for $1.
Lichtenfeld said the museum has raised money and invested in the space over the years, and the plan is to continue making improvements and make “good use” of the lower area where Amtrak is currently sited. Taking on such projects “makes better business sense” if the museum is the owner of the property, he said.
“We also feel like there’s a certain degree of control, a certain degree of autonomy you have over your space, if you own it and you’re not a renter,” he said.
Fundraising is underway for the museum’s $30 million expansion project that would demolish the Barrows Block and the Arch Street building across the street, replacing it with state-of-the-art gallery space and affordable housing and market-rate apartments and condo units. But there are “many steps we have to go through for that to become a reality,” Lichtenfeld said.
“No matter what happens with expansion plans, we think this is a good step for the museum to take,” he said. “We’re still pursuing our expansion plans but there were a lot of hurdles that we will have to overcome.”
Lichtenfeld said in earlier years, the museum wasn’t in the position financially to take on ownership nor consider long-term capital maintenance projects. He expressed gratitude for the town being willing to give the museum a good deal on rent over the years.
Now, Lichtenfeld said, the museum has “grown and evolved.” Budgeting for capital needs such as replacing the roof and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system has begun in anticipation of owning Union Station.
Before moving forward with the agreement, the museum hired an engineering firm and property inspector to come up with a report on potential maintenance costs. Lichtenfeld said a new roof on the flat portion of the building will be the first big-ticket item, coming up in the next five years or so. The HVAC system would be next, coming up in the next five to 10 years. Another project involves repointing the stone masonry on the exterior of the building.
A large retaining wall separating Union Station from Bridge Street “represents a substantial long-term capital obligation” for municipal taxpayers, Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote in a memo. Engineers for the museum assessed its condition and believe it’s in good shape for now, Lichtenfeld said.
“When those retaining walls need to be replaced there’s no two ways about it, you’ve got to repair it and it’s a pretty big expense,” Lichtenfeld said, calling it a once-in-a-century cost. “I think that’s why the town felt strongly that if we’re going do this deal, the retaining wall goes with the property and becomes the museum’s responsibility.”
Lichtenfeld said being a nonprofit puts the museum in a better position than the town because it can apply for grants for such projects, and being in a historic building also provides funding opportunities.
Over the years, town officials have approached the museum about taking over ownership of Union Station. Lichtenfeld said during most of those discussions, leadership at the museum responded by saying it couldn’t afford to take on the responsibility and burden.
When the expansion plans were first being envisioned a few years ago, so did improvements at Union Station. The hope is to make Union Station fully accessible and to make some modifications.
Lichtenfeld said internally at the museum, there were differing opinions on the ownership question. But ultimately, consensus was reached and the board governing the museum unanimously supported the project.
Lichtenfeld anticipates the museum will be exempt from property taxes based on meeting criteria under Vermont law. Elwell, who also expects the museum to be exempt, said listers would rule on the matter but it also could be appealed to the town’s Board of Civil Authority or addressed at a higher level.
“For the past 50 years, the town has not been collecting property taxes on this property because the town owns the property and it’s not paying itself property taxes so it’s not like a property that has been providing tax revenue would be coming off the tax rolls,” Lichtenfeld said.
He pointed out that the town would no longer be on the hook for the approximately $7,000 in yearly maintenance for the property.
‘Lovely idea’After Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, where the transfer of ownership was first discussed publicly after several executive sessions, the board is anticipated to warn the purchase and sale agreement for its Oct. 16 meeting. If approved then, the board would have to warn an article for annual Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in March or a special RTM.
“I think this is a lovely idea,” Select Board member Jessica Gelter said.
The purchase and sale agreement is contingent on RTM approval by April 1 and Amtrak moving out by June 30, 2024. Amtrak is scheduled to begin building its new station on the east side of the tracks next year and move to the new station by the end of 2023, Elwell said.
Also, the proposed agreement calls for the museum to accept the property as is and full responsibility for the retaining wall.
“My advice to the board is that the best interest of the community and the taxpayers is pretty clear in this matter,” Elwell said.
He said the town purchased Union Station for $27,500 in 1972 so the museum could be created in the neglected, historic building. He noted estimates for the roof replacement range between $70,000 and more than $100,000.
The museum brings visitors from all over the world to Brattleboro, board member Daniel Quipp said.
“This is an organization that could be freed from the shackles of paternalism to do its thing and to spread its wings,” he said, “so I’m all in favor of that.”