Town to apply for state grants to stabilize historic paper mills

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BELLOWS FALLS — The town of Rockingham is applying for a planning grant that would help stabilize two old paper mill buildings in hopes of eventually turning them into a museum and business space.

The Rockingham Select Board, after holding two, successive public hearings Tuesday on the grant application, voted unanimously to submit the grant to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

The grant would be used to stabilize the old TLR mill, which is made up of the old Moore and Russell buildings, which are both owned by the town. Until recently, the Bellows Falls Historical Society had hoped to undertake a similar project, but the group let its option on the buildings expire. The old mill buildings on Mill Street are adjacent to the Adams Grist Mill, which until recently was home to the historical society.

The buildings, which have been used for various industrial uses but mostly in the paper industry, have had a succession of owners until the buildings came into the town's hands because of a tax sale.

Gary Fox, Rockingham's development director, outlined the overall plans for the buildings Tuesday evening. One of the TLR buildings was the original home to International Paper Co., founded in 1898. Parts of the buildings' foundations date much further back since they made up part of the original Bellows Falls Canal, which was built in the late 1700s.

"The TLR buildings, as they are called today, have a rich architectural history as well as providing a 'frozen-in-time' glimpse of what was once the region's most dominant industry — paper making — that was powered by water," the grant application said.

The town had originally planned on submitting two separate grant requests, one for stabilization work and the second for planning, but Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the town decided to submit one overall grant request.

The town is requesting $300,000 for the stabilization, and then an additional $40,000 to update the overall plan for the buildings.

Fox estimated it would cost between $3-5 million to fully renovate the buildings and bring them back to use.

He said the buildings were in the so-called "opportunity zones" designated by the federal and state governments, and thus would be eligible for funding and investment.

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He said environmental issues still remain at the site even after extensive cleanup and, even if the buildings aren't saved, the environmental problems would still be there.

Harrison said that if approved, the money would be available in the summer of 2020, enough time to save the buildings. The town will be seeking funding from the Windham Regional Commission for an environmental site assessment, which would at the same time cover the required 10 percent match. If the money doesn't come through from the WRC, Fox said, the town has funds available in its own revolving loan fund, which is made up of repaid federal loans.

Isaac Wagner, a consultant for Bellows Falls Area Development Corp., said the grant would be used to update "the end use plan" as well as stabilize the buildings.

Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the state would not require the town to come up with an additional 10 percent match, but would give the town credit toward the required match with the work of the town staff.

Peter Golec, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, said because there is asbestos in the buildings, even after a clean up they would not be safe for residences.

Fox said the building closer to the Adams Grist Mill would be a good location for a destination "Connecticut River Heritage Center."

He said the Bellows Falls area needs jobs, so the larger TLR building has been earmarked for small businesses.

Golec said previous reports on the TLR building warned that the floors were suspended from the roof, which is deteriorating, creating a very dangerous situation.

Fox said the stabilization work, which is estimated to cost between $300,000 to $400,000, would solve that problem.

Bellows Falls resident Pat Fowler said she was in favor of the grant, and that creating a small museum to showcase the village's history would be a big plus to efforts to draw more tourists. She said hundreds of people visited Bellows Falls over the Labor Day weekend, and a museum would have been a welcome addition for many of the visitors. "I fully support going ahead with this project," she said.

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


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