Vote on Belmont Mill fuels broader review of historic properties

03-24 belmont mill folo 2

A bicyclist passes the historic Belmont Mill, where medical and senior services are located. A town committee will take up the charge of studying the building's potential as town offices. (David Carkhuff/Laconia Daily Sun)

 

By DAVID CARKHUFF, LACONIA DAILY SUN

BELMONT — Voters opposed the demolition of the historic Belmont Mill building on March 16, but the fate of the four-story landmark remains unclear

A new committee aims to sharpen that picture, and some are advocating a broader look at historic structures in town.

Articles 6-8 at Town Meeting asked voters if they wanted to renovate, demolish or sell the Belmont Mill.

Voters supported the future renovation of the Belmont Mill for use as town offices and other community purposes by 440-267; they opposed future demolition of the building by 170-522; and they narrowly supported the future sale of the building 383-320.

Kevin Sturgeon, a newly elected Planning Board member, said he is a volunteer on a newly forming committee that will review options for dealing with historic properties, including the Belmont Mill.

The Belmont Mill building was rehabilitated with federal grant money, so only certain uses are permitted during the life of the grant. That grant and its restrictions expire in two years, officials say.

By then, Sturgeon hopes the town could have an idea of how to juggle an assortment of historic and often underutilized buildings.

"We don't ever get anything to go forward because everybody wants to know the big picture," Sturgeon said. "It's been stated that the police department is really, really, the words were 'bursting at the seams.'"

Based on a tour, he confirmed it's crowded in the police station, located next to the Corner Meeting House, where the welfare office is located.

Nearby in Belmont, the existing Town Office building is only usable on the first floor. The second floor was never utilized for town offices and needs structural work to be occupied, the town reported. Accessibility to meet current codes is also an issue, according to the town.

"But if we use the Mill building for town offices, that building's big enough. It's four stories," Sturgeon said. "Supposedly, two floors is going to satisfy all of our needs for the town hall, so that's going to leave us two more floors. If we empty out the Corner Meeting House and we no longer use it, that's another building we have to talk about. What are we going to do with it?"

The former Northway Bank building located at 154 Main St. also needs to be considered, Sturgeon said.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen received cost estimates from contractors to convert the former Northway Bank building into a community recreation center. Nearly $50,000 would be needed to replace floors, install security systems and make the building ADA-compliant, the town learned last year.

The Mill building could be restored in phases, Sturgeon said, avoiding a large bond.

A warrant article calling for the Belmont Mill's renovation was defeated by Belmont voters in March 2015. The proposal called for dedicating $3.36 million — most of it in bond funding — to refurbish the building and move town offices there.

In January 2015, selectmen estimated the cost of renovations at over $1 million.

But selectmen have struggled with the lack of clarity in local opinion. Recently, board members noted that a recent survey on the subject failed to generate a definitive response.

Sturgeon said the Town Meeting vote, which involved the three questions without costs attached, still left some room for uncertainty.

"The interesting thing was it was really close on the (proposal to) save it, and there were almost 400 votes to sell it," he said.

"Hopefully, when this committee forms, we can be unified in the end," he said.

Selectman Ruth Mooney said any decision would go to the voters.

"The board's feeling at this point is we will wait and see what this group will come back to us with. We still have two years on our grant money," she said.

"We're trying to, hopefully, get a game plan," Mooney said.

"Obviously, just looking at the numbers, it was higher to save it," Mooney noted, but she said another town vote will be needed.

"Anything that happens with those will have to go to the voters. That's not a decision that we as a board are going to make," she said.

Mooney said the three questions on the warrant came from the public. "The questions were basically survey questions," Mooney said.

But the effort remains grassroots. Donna Hepp circulated a letter prior to town sessions, and at the deliberative session of Town Meeting she volunteered to form the committee to look into town buildings, including the Belmont Mill.

"I think the board as a whole, we're open," Mooney said.

But cost could change the outcome.

"When we brought it before the voters two years ago, I believe it was over $3 million to do the whole thing, and that got shot down. If we had brought it back again this year, would it have passed? I doubt it," Mooney said.

"Taxes haven't gone down. They've only gone up. And we get less and less help from the state," she said.

• About the Belmont Mill:

The Belmont Mill is one of seven properties statewide added to the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places.

A 1992 fire damaged the Belmont Mill. A court order halted demolition of the mill building, and a preservation effort spurred acquisition of two grants totaling $1 million to rehabilitate the building. Voters approved a $215,000 bond as a grant match. In 1998, the "Belmont Mill Community Center" opened.

In 2011, the Belmont Village landmark was cited by the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance as one of the state's 25 Milestone Preservation Projects over the last quarter century, and the Mill project subsequently received a preservation award from the Victorian Society in America/New England chapter, marking only the fourth New Hampshire endeavor honored by this national and international nonprofit organization.

Today, the Belknap Family Health Center and Belmont Senior Center occupy the Belmont Mill.

Belmont Mill 2017

Chopping the cost

City, Eversource near settlement on utility upgrade at The Weirs

By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN

LACONIA — Following a meeting with officials from Eversource on Thursday, the City Council could find its dispute with the utility over the cost of burying the power lines along Lakeside Avenue in The Weirs resolved by its next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

Initially, Eversource estimated the cost of designing and constructing the project at $311,316. However, Eversource informed the city last month that the cost would not exceed $786,000, a difference of $474,684 and more than double the original estimate.

Paul Ramsey, vice president of operations for Eversource, stressed that "We've always had a very good working relationship with Laconia, which we intend to continue." He said that company will undertake "an internal review," including gathering information from contractors, to determine the precise extent of the discrepancy. If necessary, he said, that the company would work nights and weekends.

The council unanimously authorized City Manager Scott Myers to enter into conversations with officials from Eversource and report back to the council as soon as possible.

"Hopefully by Monday night," added Mayor Ed Engler.

In light of Ramsey's remarks, Engler said later that "There is every likelihood of having that number when the council meets on Monday."

The entire project is scheduled to be complete by Memorial Day, lending urgency to determining the cost of burying the utilities. The amount of the cost overrun could lead the council to narrow the scope of the project, by reducing the costs of street lighting, sidewalks and crosswalks. Moreover, for work to proceed on improvements to the streetscape, the power lines must be underground and the utility poles taken down by April 1 to provide the eight weeks needed to complete the project on schedule in advance of Motorcycle Week, which opens on June 10. Meanwhile, Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) pointed out that that the council will begin preparing the 2017-2018 city budget in two weeks.

During the meeting, there was no discussion of the statement by Kaitlyn Woods of Eversource, reported by The New Hampshire Union Leader on Monday, that the cost overrun was result of the city's request to expedite burying the utilities and complete the work by March 15.

However, Engler, while acknowledging that "explaining the discrepancy is difficult to do," noted that Eversource originally projected that 1,468 hours would be required to complete the work, which proved to be "significantly understated." He said that two contractors bid the job and both estimated significantly more hours would be required to complete it and asked Myers "Are the contractors' numbers closer to what has been the case?"

Myers replied that "they are likely to bear out to be the actual numbers."

Ramsey neither challenged nor questioned this explanation for the cost overrun.

GHS report card wanted

Gilmanton asks for stats on Gilford High students

By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN

GILMANTON — The Gilmanton School Board voted unanimously on Tuesday, March 21, to send a letter to the Gilford School District, making a formal request for information about academic performance of Gilmanton students who attend Gilford High School.
An area tuition agreement that allows Gilmanton students to attend Gilford High School prompts questions from Gilmanton parents, board members say. These parents want to know how their children fare once they become Golden Eagles.
Gilmanton School Board Chairman Adam Mini said, "I know I've gotten questions: 'How are we doing? How are our kids doing?'"
Fellow trustee Frank Weeks pointed out that Gilmanton pays for the tuition agreement, and when a school district invests money, members of that district want to know what the "returns" are.
Mini said he wanted the letter to come from the School Board rather than administration.
"There's that collegial working relationship that should not be sullied by this. That's the goal. I don't want to drive a wedge for you guys," he said, referring to administrators at the March 21 School Board meeting.
Gilmanton School Superintendent John Fauci acknowledged an educators' view that the student body at Gilford High School constitutes a single, unified body, with a one-school philosophy.
Kirk Beitler, superintendent of schools in Gilford, on Wednesday responded to an email request for comment by stating, "I have not seen any such letter at this time and would need to see the letter prior to making any comment. We are Gilford High School and all students that attend the high school are Gilford High School students."
The area tuition agreement was expected to increase by nearly $47,000 in the upcoming school year, based on projections. The 2016-2017 tuition rate for 158 high school students attending Gilford High School was $18,744, according to figures in the Gilmanton School District budget. The previous year, the rate was $17,742. Total tuition cost for 2016-2017 was an estimated $3.138 million, compared with $2.856 million the previous year, according to budget figures.
A committee in Gilmanton is looking into the subject of the tuition agreement.
The High School Options Committee is a 13-member committee representing parents, teachers, school board members, Budget Committee members, selectmen, planning board members and others with an interest in the topic.
On March 21, the Gilmanton School Board voted to appoint Weeks as the primary seat holder on the High School Options Committee and Malcolm MacLeod as the secondary member. Michelle Heyman has been a community member on the committee, but the School Board acknowledged that three members would constitute a quorum, so Heyman agreed to withdraw.
Fauci has emphasized that the committee's mission does not imply any dissatisfaction with Gilford.
"It always comes up because a third of our budget is what we pay for our high school students," Fauci said in a past interview.
While the two school districts consider this request for data, they will try to coordinate their graduation ceremonies.

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