LACONIA — When between 40 and 50 of the some 150 members of the Belknap Mill Society met at the mill yesterday by a show of hands an apparent majority of those present opposed the society divesting itself of the mill by transferring ownership to either the city or a private party.
In October, Christine Santaniello, president of the society, and the trustees concluded that the society lacked the financial means to own and maintain the historic building. The trustees announced that they were searching for a partner who would assume ownership of the property while ensuring public access to the first and third floors of the building and enabling the society to offer its educational and cultural programs. They approached the City Council, offering to sell the building to the city at an undisclosed price, but a majority of the councilors urged them to explore alternative arrangements.
Yesterday's meeting was confined to members and closed to the media. However, attorney Pat Wood, a former trustee of the society who has done legal work on its behalf, said that the sentiment of those members in attendance favored the society retaining ownership of the mill. Wood was among a number of members to question the judgment of the trustees that the society could no longer sustain its ownership of the mill and suggest ways of overcoming the immediate financial problems and placing the society's finances on a sound footing.
Ed Engler, a member of the society and mayor of the city, raised the issue by reminding the membership that the trustees preferred to sell the building and suggested the meeting address the question. The proposition drew scant support from the members. Tom Tardif questioned whether the society could sell the mill to the city, referring to documents indicating that it could only be sold to Belknap County. City taxpayers, he said, would then only bear 20 percent of the cost of maintaining it.
After the straw poll, Santaniello said that the trustees, having sounded the members, would reconsider the situation and prepare a recommendation to present to the membership at the annual meeting of the society in February.
Engler said that he was "encouraged that the trustees have a decision-making plan. I think it is a good one," he continued, "and we'll see what happens." The decision about whether or not to disclose the terms of the offer the trustees made to the city, Engler said "is up to the trustees. We are respecting their wishes." The council sealed the minutes of the non-public session on October 17 at which the offer was was presented.
Engler expected that "further discussion with the city will be placed on hold until after the annual meeting" and doubted that the City Council would consider the issue in the meantime.
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