Town Hall renovation article barely makes the warrant


Two Wolfeboro selectmen vote against proposed renovation


by Thomas Beeler
Editor of The Granite State News
December 26, 2013
WOLFEBORO — Selectmen held a public hearing on Dec. 18 on three proposed warrant articles that would require bonding. Two of the three drew few if any comments and were approved 5-0 for inclusion on the 2014 warrant.

The third, for the reduced scope renovation of Town Hall, received lots of comments, with all but one supportive, but barely made the warrant list on a 3-2 vote.

The two bonded articles that easily passed muster were straightforward enough. The first was for reconstruction the Wolfeboro section of Middleton Road for $1,350,000, with the state reimbursing $900,000 of the cost, leaving a net balance of $450,000 to be bonded. Voters approved $150,000 for an engineering study of the road last March, with the state reimbursing $100,000 of the cost. The N.H. Department of Transportation is facing declining revenues from the 20-year-old gas tax and has not maintained the road. By absorbing two-thirds of the cost of rebuilding it the state will permanently turn the road over to the town to maintain. Ken Marschner, a resident of the 41-home Sherwood Forest subdivision on that road, spoke in favor.

The second bonded article was for $160,000 to complete upgrades to the public works garage on Pine Hill Road, including replacing the salt shed and the hangers for sand and salt spreaders. The work was postponed from last year. No one spoke for or against this article.

Town Hall renovation

It was the third article that drew the most comments, mostly in support. It proposes to raise $3,889,699 for a reduced-scope renovation of Brewster Memorial Hall, also known at Town Hall. That maximum amount will be reduced by funds from two sources: 1) from the Town Office Facility Capital Reserve Fund (estimated at $110,301), and pledged donations from ongoing fundraising by the Friends of Wolfeboro Town Hall (currently at $736,690), leaving an estimated maximum of $3,042,708 to be raised by bonds.

Friends President Joyce Davis spoke first. She noted that the Friends were established in 2007 at a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation to educate the public on Town Hall and raise funds for its renovation. "After six years, we've finally got it right," she said. Although the building still lacks central heating and uses individual electric heating units, many improvements have been made in the last few years and "it's time to finish the job."

Davis said so far the Friends have raised $736,690 in pledges from 348 individuals and businesses and more are coming in every day. She said the Friends plan to publicly advocate for the renovation in 2014. "It's a win-win for the town," she said, improving the downtown and revitalizing it with activities in the restored second floor Great Hall.

Town Planner Rob Houseman then reviewed the current plans for the renovation, pointing out how they have changed, not only from the $6.7 million proposal of 2008 but also from the $4 million proposal of 2011.

Instead of having four openings in the front of the building, there will be one, with a vestibule, that will give visitors interior access to all departments. The first floor will be completely ADA accessible, both through the Main Street entrance as well as the new level main entrance off the main parking lot out back.

An elevator in the main entrance will make the second floor accessible. The Great Hall upstairs will not be divided into offices, as proposed in 2011, but kept as an auditorium space with a restored stage. The arch now hidden by ceiling titles will be revealed.

The basement in the main building will be left unchanged, not excavated as in the 2008 plan. The basement in the Annex with its 14-foot ceilings will be used for an HVAC system and utilities.

The exterior brickwork will be repointed and repaired as needed and windows on the second and third floors will be repaired or replaced. The windows on the first floor have already been replaced and both the front and back parking lots have been rebuilt to ADA standards. As a bonus there is now a sidewalk on Union Street down to Lehner Street.

Other members of the audience then gave their views.

Olive Garvey of Sewell Road said she was speaking for Mimi Dye as well as herself in saying that the renovation must be done. Just about everywhere else in town has been restored except Town Hall and now its time to "get the job done" there.

Bill VanWagner said he moved to Wolfeboro in 1987 and that the Town Hall is a reason to come. He said he loves to hear the clock tower's Revere bell ring: "It creates a campus atmosphere." He said he fully supported the renovation.

Blair Moffett said for thelast 12 years he has owned one of the early houses in town, a dwelling that was more than 100 years old when the Town Hall was built in 1890. He said he is excited about the project and is a Friends member. The process of raising the funds has "stirred up a conversation in the community," with people sharing their love of the town and appreciation for the project. "There is a community reservoir of enthusiasm and good will for this project," he concluded.

Anne Blodget said it was "time to step up" and restore Town Hall. A 62-year summer resident and now a year-round community member, she was involved with the renovation of the Boston Children's Museum. She asked those present to imagine the use of the second floor space. "Children and grandchildren will benefit immediately – there is endless potential." She asked people to imagine taking an elevator up to that floor with children. People interested in what the second floor looks like and its potential can get that information online at wolfeborotownhallfriends.org.

Gary Baker recalled the first meeting of the Friends on Jan. 5, 2007 and commented, "In a town I thought took pride it itself, the Town Hall was a disgrace." He also thought then than restoring it would be a simple job, "but I was wrong. It takes 60 percent of voters to approve the project." He then reviewed the history of votes on the building going back to 2005. In all cases except the 2008 $6.7 million proposal a majority has voted in favor of restoring the building, and in 2011 58.4 percent voted for the $4 million project, just 1.6 points shy of what was needed. "This year we are asking for less. We hope Wolfeboro will accept the Friends' gift and the majority will prevail."

Andrea Dudley spoke for local nonprofits, saying they all looked forward to having meetings at Town Hall. The Governor Wentworth Arts Council for one would welcome an indoor space for exhibits and art events. "It will bring real value to nonprofits in Wolfeboro," she said.

Architect Vaune Dugan said she was not there to speak about the building but about bring the community together in a place "where we can meet and interact." She said she has two children between teenage and child rearing age and right now in the evening "the sidewalks roll up." Restoring the Great Hall will give "the opportunity to bring life back into downtown. We can have dances and entertainment, not just a night out eating and drinking."

Judy Breuninger, whose family has been in Wolfeboro since the 1930s, says she has watched the Town Hall decline. "Now is the time to do something," she said. She mentioned a meeting on Nov. 13, 2012 where 30 people representing nonprofit and other organizations where participants wrote down potential uses for the Great Hall and all said they would use it. She noted that parking is not an issue in the evenings and said young people would also benefit. She said she took her 16-year-old grandchild to see the Great Hall and "she gasped and said she wanted her Sweet 16 party there." "Now is the time to do it," Breuninger said, thanking all who have worked hard to get it done.

Maggie Stier of 314 Center St. said she works for the N.H. Preservation Alliance and commutes to Concord. She said,"I don't see why Wolfeboro can not join the list of [restoration] successes around the state. Pencils have been sharpened and plans made."

Susan Goodwin said she has been a lifelong summer resident and for the past five years has lived year-round. "I urge you to go with it," she said.

Dissenting voice

After 11 people spoke in favor of the article, Bob Lemaire stepped up to the microphone, offering what he described as "a little contrast."

He said that five years ago he heard that it had to be "all or nothing" five years ago. Proposals to scale back or phase the work were rejected. To him there has been "a disconnect between the promoters and the rest of the citizens" on this project.

Lemaire cited the Wakefield Opera House project, where there was no demand that taxpayers pay for a complete renovation. The work has been phased and there is no debt.

He said he has offered to work on the project and "none of thelast two failed articles was opposed by me or any other."

"Multimillion dollar restoration does not take place in small towns," he said, yet there is pressure to do this project and even restore the former Municipal Electric building on Lehner Street. The town even rebuilt the train station for the Chamber of Commerce, he said. "We are talking about spending millions on a vague mission."

"The community needs 60 percent of voters to proceeds, so it looks like nothing will happen," he said, pointing out that 40 percent of responders to a survey said the building should be sold.

"Reasonable people would go along with the Wakefield approach:" the second floor could be done and the first floor funded over years without debt.

He complained that he wanted to join the Friends but that "Joyce Davis said I had to make a contribution to join…If you want us to give you $3.5 million you need to get us involved. I will be voting 'no" and perhaps we will come back next year with a proposal that will work."

Bill Swaffield responded that there has been "plenty of opportunity for input. Theproblem is that the town owns Town Hall, so the town needs to do something…It's our building." He the cited renovated town halls in Plymouth, New Durham and Merrimac, Mass., which has the twin of Brewster Memorial Hall. He also objected to the "all or nothing" assertion, pointing out that the project has been scaled down from $6.7 million to "nearly half."

Dugan said she was a member of the original committee and resigned because the plan went too far. She also took away from the same survey cited by Lemaire that the public prefers a public-private project, which this is. "It is aq compromise, and a good one."

Roger Murray spoke against Lemaire's assertion of a disconnect and said he had asked Leamire in 2011 "what we could do to get his support," and got no answer.

Peter Goodwin pointed out that summer residents are generally not voters and thus are not counted. "Improvements keep them coming back..We need to think about the people who pay taxes."

Richard Massey said people come to Wolfeboro because of the character of the town."It remind them of a time and place that have largely disappeared everywhere else." He said evaluating everything by a price tag is wrong: it is "breaking faith with those who left us with what we have that they took pride in…They built structures that would outlast them and their children and grandchildren."

Jim Nupp said the Friends of Wolfeboro Town Hall have made an effort to accommodate input from others. "It would be a disservice if the board did not adopt the article."

Selectmen then discussed the project. Selectman Brad Harriman said he congratulated the Friends for their efforts and felt the Town Hall should stay where it is but that he preferred to do the work in phases: "Start with the exterior then do the interior."

Selectman Dave Senecal said he has not been in favor of the project for some time and still does not support it. He said he is bothered by the 15 percent contingency and not sure about the plans.

Selectman Linda Murray said the timeline on Town Hall renovation started in 1989 when the town explored alternative office spaces, and it is now 24 years later. "We have a new design and a public-private partnership. It is time to move forward."

Selectman Dave Bowers pointed out that the town tax rate has always been in the lowest quartile in the state and that current interest rates on bond are half what they were in 2007. "The cost of bonding is better now than in the past century."

Selectmen Chair Sarah Silk said she was impressed with a group like the Friends that has come up with 25 percent of the cost. She pointed out that phasing has been considered, but when you get to interior work, staff has to be moved out. "We've done all the piecemeal we can."

She moved the vote to put the article on the warrant. The tally was 3-2, with Harriman and Senecal opposed.

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