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Notre Dame gets "Ready to Reuse" approval from state environmental agency



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An interior hallway of the former Notre Dame High School. Courtesy photo. (click for larger version)
July 03, 2012
BERLIN - The environmental cleaning of the former Notre Dame High School was completed at the beginning of this year, but officials had to wait until they got the official notification from the State Department of Environmental Services before future planning could begin.

Early this month those letters were received and Max Makaitis, Housing and Economic Development Director with Tri-County CAP, is working on applications that will be submitted to various grant and loan sources over the next couple of months.

It's hoped actual reconstruction to turn the former school into senior assisted living apartments will begin the fall of 2013 and by the following summer the building will be fully occupied. There is presently long waiting lists at current housing facilities for seniors.

When completed it will contain 33 one-bedroom apartments seniors needing supported living arrangements. The assistance will come from agencies in the community.

In addition to apartments, the lower level will have a function room, meeting room and a tenant storage area. Each apartment will have a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath. They will average 660 square feet. Because of all the grants involved, the units will remain "affordable" for at least 20 years.

Getting all the approvals and financing in place for rehabilitating the building has been a long process. It's not a sure thing yet and there are still several steps to take, but getting the environmental issues taken care of and signed off on is a major step forward.

It began almost a decade ago, in 2003, when a group of Notre Dame alumni, led by Lorraine Leclerc, approached the city about redeveloping the building. They organized volunteers to clean up the grounds and boarded up the windows. One of the volunteers was an engineer who did a structural analysis of the building and found the main building sound.

Finally, in 2008, a federal Brownsfield grant of $200,000 was received to begin the cleanup. In 2011 a $400,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant was received to complete the environmental work.

That same year the city, which owns the building for back taxes, sought and received National Historical Register Site approval. The plan also received planning board and zoning board approval that year.

For a time it was thought private developers would develop the site into senior assisted living, but they were unable to get the financing needed. Tri-County CAP then received a purchase and sales agreement with the city giving that group until 2013 to raise the money.

The environmental work was actually completed in January of this year, however, the state Department of Environmental Services could not sign off on it until it received a final report from the city's environmental consultant.

About a month ago the city received the needed "Certificate of No Further Action," and the "Ready to Reuse" letter from the state.

City officials had hoped to have the finances in place by now. Last year the project was tentatively approved for a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and a $500,000 N.H. tax credit. But that was contingent on approval from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. The project came in second.

This year they are awarding two projects. Makaitis has worked on the applications and the Coos County Commission has voted to support the CDGE grant, so officials are fairly confident it will be approved this time.

The project already has in place a $400,000 forgivable loan with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.

The total project will cost $7.589 million. There is a long list of sources for this money, however the bottom line is only $213,000 will actually have to be paid back. The rest will come from grants and forgivable loans.

A project timeline has a January 15, 2013 date for when it's believed all funds will be committed. It shows construction starting September 15, 2013 and finishing on December 31, 2014. Six months later they expect the building to be full.

History

The following information about the history of the building was from records in the Berlin Historical Society.

The first Berlin High School was constructed on that School Street site and opened in 1885. On December 15, 1904 it burned to the ground. It was decided to reconstruct the building but as an elementary school.

The George E. Burgess School opened in January 1906 for grades five and six. Just 11 years later there was another fire, but again it was rebuilt, and enlarged, from the original four rooms to eight rooms.

The school report for the 1917-18 school year claimed crowding had been eliminated. "The average number of pupils per grade room is now 38, a number well suited for good results in teachering," the report stated.

From that time until it closed in 1938 it housed grades 4-6. After that it was used for two to three years for W.P.A. sewing projects and storage for federal surplus commodities. At one time 55 women were employed there sewing.

In 1941 Guardian Angel Parish asked the city council to buy the building and it opened as Notre Dame High School. In 1948 the right wing with a cafeteria and gym/auditorium was added. In 1954 the left wing with more classrooms and nuns' quarters with chapel were added.

Notre Dame closed in 1972. For many years Notre Dame and Berlin High School had a fierce hockey rivalry, but when the time came, students from the two schools merged seamlessly.

Several other local Catholic Schools closed as well around that period, including: Our Lady of Mountains Academy in Gorham (1968), St. Francis Xavier in Groveton (1969), Our Lady of Mountains High School in Gorham (1969), St Benedict in Cascade Village (1969), St. Joseph Elementary in Berlin (1971) and St. Regis Academy in Berlin (1973).

In 1973 the city again used the building, for grades five and six. It was once again called the Burgess School. In 1984 the building closed for good. It remained abandoned and vandalized for the next 20 years.

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