LACONIA — Spared from the wrecking ball in 1970, the Belknap Mill once again faces a clouded future, which will be the topic of public discussion when the City Council meets on Monday, December 8.
Last month the Belknap Mill Society, the nonprofit corporation that owns the mill, announced that it no longer has the financial capacity to own and maintain the oldest unaltered, brick textile mill in the country and one of the first buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The board of trustees has said it would prefer to "partner" with the city itself or a private party in the ownership and operation of the building, which would remain open to both the public and the society. However, Chris Santaniello, the executive director of the Lakes Region Community Services Council who is president of board, said that without such a partnership, the property would have to be offered for sale on the open market.
Mayor Ed Engler has acknowledged that at a private meeting with the City Council in October the trustees of the society offered the mill to the city for an undisclosed price. However, he said that councilors asked that other avenues be thoroughly explored before a municipal purchase could be explored.
According to the Form 990, which the society, as a tax exempt, nonprofit corporation files each year with the Internal Revenue Service, the society posted operating losses of $20,325 in 2012 and $59,279 in 2013. According to the balance sheet, the society ended 2013 cash, savings, and accounts receivable of $73,246 and liabilities of $15,422.
David Stamps, who served as treasurer of the society from 2011 to 2014, said that the mill "has not been even close to a break-even point for many, many years."
Santaniello said that the society has drawn on its reserves to maintain operations and has sufficient funds to enable the society to keep the mill open for six or seven months.
The society's operating budget in 2013 was $216,678, including compensation and benefits of $86,741 and occupancy expenses —utilities, insurance and maintenance — of $57,000. Total revenues were $157,399, leaving an operating deficit of $59,279. Rental income of $51,301 represented the largest single source of revenue. Two spaces in the mill are rented to law practices and the society also rents space, particularly the function room on the third floor, to civic organizations and private parties on an event-by-event basis. The society realized net gains of $22,809 from the sale of securities. Fundraising events grossed $45,048, which less expenses of $28,837 yielded net income of $16,211, and membership dues and cash contributions returned $33,694. The society also collected $15,465 in proceeds from charitable gaming at Seabrook Greyhound Park.
The filing indicates that membership dues and contributions fell almost 70-percent between 2009 and 2013, from $111,388 to $33,694. The society offers memberships to businesses at dues ranging from $100 to $5,000 and to individuals at dues ranging from $50 to $5,000.
Meanwhile, the costs of operating and maintaining the building, constructed in 1823, continue to rise. Stamps estimated that a minimum of $500,000 in capital investment, including new heating and lighting systems, is necessary to put the structure in good repair.
Stamps said that membership, which had reached 800 in the 1990s, had had plummeted to around 30 by 2011. Andre Paquette, who served on the board from 1982 to 1991, said that when he rejoined it in 2011 "business memberships were non-existent."
Paul Morin, whose family owned the mill before it ceased operating in 1969, served as a trustee from 1995 until 2007 and, like Paquette, returned briefly in 2011. By then, he said, the mill was struggling financially. He found that no aggressive grant writing or fundraising efforts were underway. Longstanding members were not pursued to renew and new members, especially businesses, were not aggressively courted. Instead, Morin said the board intended to develop what he called "a high-end art gallery and gift shop" to bolster the revenue stream. The plan, he said, displaced the historical features and character of the mill, which he believed represent its value and attraction. "We could see this coming," he said
Meanwhile, reductions in government funding bred stiffer competition from ever more nonprofit corporations competing for public and private grants, corporate sponsorships and private contributions. And the local economy was reeling from the effects of recession.