Town acts to save historic paper mill buildings

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ROCKINGHAM — The town plans to apply for three different federal grants to help clean up and potentially rehabilitate the town-owned TLR buildings.

The old paper mills, which were the first home of International Paper Co., became the property of the town many years ago because of a tax sale.

Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox told the Rockingham Select Board last week that the dilapidated brick structures need structural help to keep them stable until a full renovation could be evaluated or planned.

Fox said he also would be applying for a grant to pay for a planning study, updating an earlier 2003 study. To date, more than $1 million of federal money has been spent to clean up pollution on the site, Fox said.

Fox had taped up many posters from the earlier studies in the Rockingham Meeting House, where the Select Board was holding its annual visit to the historic structure.

He said renowned architect Michael Singer, who at the time was teaching at Marlboro College, had studied the buildings and surrounding area. But Fox said conditions had changed, requiring a new evaluation.

The buildings are visible from downtown Bellows Falls, and the windows and doors are currently boarded up with light-blue murals featuring silhouettes of ordinary people.

The action to save the old paper mills comes months after the Bellows Falls Area Development Corp., in conjunction with the town, demolished the Robertson Paper Mill, saying it was beyond rehabilitation.

Fox said the grant applications would be enhanced if the town had an end use in mind for the buildings, and he said the town plans to apply for $40,000 to complete stabilization construction documents, as well as update end-use plans for the old paper mill buildings, and $300,000 to stabilize the buildings.

He said the $35,000 brownfields grant application would be to the Windham Regional Commission, which would apply for the federal funds held by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The board voted unanimously to advertise the various grant hearings, which will be held in September, Fox said.

Specifically, the town will apply to the Vermont Community Development Program for two grants - a planning grant to develop the bid documents needed to stabilize the buildings, and a slum and blight grant to make critical repairs to stabilize the buildings.

TLR stands for the T. L. Riley company, which operated the paper mills at 14 and 16 Mill Street. That was the first home of International Paper Co., and it has a great deal of historical significance including the fact that part of its foundation walls are part of the original Bellows Falls Canal, which was constructed (the first in the country) starting in 1790, according to a background paper prepared by Fox.

Over the years, in addition to International Paper, the mill buildings were home to Fall Mountain Paper Co., then Babbitt and Kelly, and White Mountain Paper Co., starting in 1945, and then finally T.L. Riley Co., in the 1980s.

The Bellows Falls Historical Society had held a lease on the buildings for the past three years, with an option to buy, but Fox said the lease terminated last month as the historical society was not able to make enough progress on the building as required by the lease and option with the town.

But Fox's report noted that the historical society did complete an engineering study that identified $200,000 to $3000 of "critical stabilization work" to secure the structure before renovations could begin.

He said he would not be proposing a local match for the $35,000 grant for the environmental work.

Fox said the town could apply to the same agencies with demolition as the "end use."

"We do not recommend this option because renovation is still a viable option," he said.

The two public meetings about the application for the community development block grant applications will be held Sept. 3, at the next select board meeting, he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311, ext. 154.


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