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Council gives schools OK to proceed with $1.8M borrowing

LACONIA — With one dissenter, the City Council last night gave the School District a green light to pursue a $1,828,000 loan bearing no interest to fund improvements and renovations at what School Superintendent Terri Forsten called "our beloved Laconia High School."
Laconia was the only school district in the state to express interest in the Qualified Zone Academy Bond, or QZAB, which is awarded by the federal government and administered by the New Hampshire Department of Education. To qualify more than 35-percent of the students enrolled in the district must be eligible for free or reduced lunch, a threshold Laconia, at 53 percent, easily exceeds. In addition, funding requires a local match of 10 percent, creation of a so-called "zone academy" and collaboration with community partners, all criteria the School District can satisfy.
Forsten said that the highest priority for the funds is to address health and safety issues by installing a sprinkler system and air handlers as well as removing asbestos and radon gas. If there are sufficient funds remaining the electrical systems in most classrooms would be upgraded, the bleachers in the gymnasium brought up to code, emergency lighting replaced with LED units and the main entrance secured.
Forsten said that for 23 years the annual debt service of $78,261, would be drawn from the School District's operating budget and therefore, would have no impact on the municipal tax cap.
Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) reminded Forsten that the School District has been aware of the life-safety issues for some years, but chose not to include them in the renovation of the high school, expansion of the Huot Regional Technical Education Center and construction of new playing fields completed this year at a cost of $16.8 million. "Some of that $3-million spent on the football field could have been spent on these repairs," she said.
Baer also cautioned that the city will find itself faced bearing the costs of higher retirement contributions, a new county jail and improvements by the Winnipesaukee River Basin Program and suggested that the School District has had its fair share of investment in recent years.
But, Baer was the lone councilor to question the borrowing.

Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) said that the loan offers the most efficient way of protecting the investment the city has made in the high school. Since the debt would be repaid from the School District's operating budget, the borrowing "would not diminish any other (city) project."
Lipman was echoed by Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5), who reminded his colleagues that the Fire Department expressed concern that parts of the building remain without sprinklers. "We've got to sprinkle the rest of the building," he insisted.
Forsten said the application for the QZAB was submitted on October 1 and the City Council must host a public hearing and officially approve the borrowing before the year is out. If the loan is approved, she expects the work would be bid in March, begun in June and completed by September 2014.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 October 2013 03:06

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Sanbornton will take long look at privatizing public works

SANBORNTON — At the request of one selectman and two members of the municipal Budget Committee, the Selectboard has created a committee to see if the town should privatize the highway portion of Department of Public Works.

The committee, whose tentative members are scheduled to meet with selectmen today, is tasked with exploring other towns that have privatized or subcontracted their road work to private contractors and to see if the town could realize any savings.

"It looks like Sanbornton could save between $500,000 and $700,000," said selectman Dave Nickerson. "That's an awful lot of money."

Budget Committee Chair Earl Leighton said he is in full support of examining the possibilities.

Leighton said the Department of Public Works operating budget is around $1 million, plus $400,000 in capital expenses for road paving and reconstruction. He said the department has six full-time employees including the director.

"I'm critical of the entire system," Leighton said, not referring specifically to Sanbornton but to the idea of municipalities having town-operated departments of public works when there are private contractors who would want the work and bid competitively to get it.

Leighton also said the system is inefficient and gave the town's need to replace a 10-year-old dump truck as an example. "I'm driving a 1987 dump truck and it works just fine," he said.

"The director becomes a maestro," he said, meaning that in his vision of Sanbornton's future the town would continue to have a DPW director but he or she would act to coordinate private contractors to get the needed work done.

Nickerson said yesterday that, according to data provided by the N.H. Local Government Center and researched by the town administrator, 12 or 13  of the state's 200 plus communities — including Salsbury, Webster, and Newbury — have subcontracted out their highway maintenance to private companies.

He said community's on that list range in size from 1,000 to 5,000 residents. Sanbornton has about 2,800.

In the past 10 or so years since Gene Auger retired as the elected road agent, Sanbornton has had a revolving door of DPW directors  — from Ralph Carter who succeeded Auger to Lenny Boudrias who was hired to replace Carter and lasted only a few months to John Hubbard, John Thayer and now Johnny VanTassel, who took over about a year and a half ago. The director is now appointed by selectmen and not elected by voters — a decision made by voters at an annual town meeting at least seven years ago.

Over the same amount of time there has been a constant undercurrent of criticism of the work done by the highway department and its employees, some of which has lead to a high turnover rate and some of which can be attributed to employees and directors being able to earn more money in larger municipalities — a problem that also exists for the Police Department.

In that same time span, the town has built a $1-million Department of Public Works building — something Nickerson said could be used as a new fire station, giving the Police Department more room.

According to minutes of a meeting held this past summer, three of six employees including the foreman have resigned this year — two citing the ability to earn more elsewhere and one citing problems with management. As of three weeks ago, the town was seeking to replace a laborer's position.

Selectmen offered a list of seven people they felt should serve on a DPW privatization committee — Jeff Jenkins of the Budget Committee, Bill Whalen, Fire Chief Paul Dexter, Andy Sanborn, retired Finance Director Curt McGee, DPW Director Johnny VanTassel, Mark Thurston, and Ralph Rathjen.

Any decision to privatize the DPW must be approved by annual town meeting in May said Leighton and Nickerson, who added the earliest he could foresee anything going to the voters is the town meeting in 2015.

Town Administrator Bob Veloski said yesterday he has contacted all of proposed committee members, with the exception of Sanborn and all of the chosen have been invited to attend tonight's selectman's meeting that begins a 4:30 p.m.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 October 2013 02:44

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Hiding in a Pleasant Street barn: 125-year-old grand drape from Laconia's Moulton Opera House found

LACONIA — It was the kind of experience historians dream of: on May 14, on the hot and dusty third floor of an old barn on Pleasant Street, Laconia Historical and Museum Society's Executive Director Brenda Polidoro and board member Warren Huse, joined by Christine Hadsel, dragged out from its hiding place a large roll of fabric, and with bated breath, carefully began to reveal what had been hidden for four decades.

Within a few revolutions of the roll, the trio realized that the rumor was true. The anonymous-looking roll of fabric, stuffed into the eave of the barn and forgotten for decades, was the 125 year-old grand drape that for some 60 years had hung before the curtain at the long-demolished Moulton Opera House. What's more, it was in nearly perfect condition.

"My heart was racing, my hands were shaking," recalled Polidoro. She had heard in January, through resident Dorothy Duffy, that the property on Pleasant Street had recently changed hands and that its barn might contain an artifact from the era when Laconia boasted four ornate theaters. However, Polidoro had resisted the urge to check out the tip for herself, worried that she might inadvertently damage the drape.

"As curious as I was to see what was rolled up, I didn't want to do anything wrong," she said. So, she waited until May, when she could investigate the item under the guidance of Hadsel, executive director of the Vermont-based Curtains Without Borders, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of just such cultural artifacts. What they found was a drape in better condition than what anyone could have hoped for, and equally impressive to their expert guest, reported Polidoro. "She said, 'This is the most exquisite curtain I have ever seen.'"

The Moulton Opera House once stood on Main Street, blocks away from the Colonial and Garden theaters and across town from the Lakeport Opera House. Moulton Opera House, built by bank president John C. Moulton and first opened on August 23, 1887, was located on the second and third floors of a brick building that also housed O'Shea's Department Store. In an era that predated television and the widespread proliferation of automobiles, the city's residents relied upon the grand theaters for entertainment and to whisk them away from their daily troubles. Recalled Duffy, who frequented the Laconia theaters as a girl, "No matter how bad your situation was, you could go to the theater and escape it."

Each of the theaters would have had a grand drape or curtain, an ornately decorated piece of fabric that would hang in front of the stage's main curtain, providing theater goers something to look at while they waited for the production to begin. Often, the drapes were painted in the likeness of well-known works of art, and such was the case of the Moulton Opera House drape. Painted in 1886 by Eugene Cramer of Columbia, S. C., the drape is an homage to "Morning on the Nile," painted by Belgian artist Jacob Jacobs. However, since Cramer was translating the image to a drape that measured 29 feet wide by 19 feet tall, he had some extra space to fill, and so it appeared to Polidoro that he added some of his own flourishes, such as a boat that could be Noah's Ark.

The fabric of the drape, according to Polidoro, is comprised of four foot sections of heavy cotton, perhaps some linen, sewn together. Cramer used water-based distemper paint to create the artwork. Apart from some minor fraying of the seams holding the panels together, and some light dirt on the fabric, Polidoro said the drape is remarkably well preserved. Even so, she'll seek funding, in the way of a state grant, to pay Hadsel's organization to restore the historic item.

Polidoro was grateful to local contractor John Kean, who built a cradle to support the rolled-up drape while it was carefully removed from the barn, and to Boulia-Gorrell Lumber Company, which volunteered a boom truck and operator to lower it from the third-floor bay door.

Sally Veazey, general manager and treasurer for Boulia-Gorrell, said her company agreed without hesitation to assist in the project. "It was such a wonderful item that they found. We were thrilled to be asked, history is an important thing for a town. History is what makes a town what it is. We've been here 141 years in this business, history is very important to us."

The drape was moved on September 14 and is currently in safe storage awaiting its restoration. Polidoro hopes to ultimately find a place where the drape can be mounted and occasionally displayed for public viewing.

If it was fortune that guarded the antique drape for the half-century that it spent in forgotten storage, it was equally lucky that the drape managed to find its way from the theater to the barn. That stroke of luck came in the form of Wayne Fletcher, who 40 years ago was a young man working for Sam Dunn.

Dunn, said Fletcher, owned Pheasant Ridge Country Club and "had more money than he knew what to do with." When it became clear that the building containing Moulton Opera House would be razed in 1970 as part of so-called urban renewal, Dunn successfully bid on the entire contents of the theater and hired Fletcher to lead a crew to clean it out. After lowering the grandiose chandelier, removing the seats and all the other valuable furnishings, they came to the drape.

"I can remember going in there as a kid to the theater, and we used to admire it," said Fletcher, recalling how he and the other workers lowered the drape to the floor of the stage. "I told the guys, I think this is going to be history. Let's roll it up and take care of it."

Fletcher contacted Frank Neal, a banker and member of the Pheasant Ridge club, who lived on Pleasant Street. Neal agreed to allow the drape to be stored in his barn. "We just thought, maybe somebody would like to see it. So we rolled it up, put it in the barn and let's see what happens."

The property changed hands several times, and for all Polidoro knows subsequent owners had no idea that an irreplaceable part of the city's history was stashed in the barn. When Don Houle, an acquaintance of Fletcher's bought the buildings and land recently, Fletcher asked him to see if there was a large roll of fabric in the barn's top floor.

Houle offered to donate whatever was in the roll to the Laconia Historical and Museum Society, and so Polidoro was able to view something that no person had seen since the Moulton Opera House was demolished. "That building has been gone since urban renewal," marveled Polidoro. "Lo and behold, here's the curtain from that building."

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 October 2013 02:28

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Save Gale School Committee encouraged after meeting with Shaker board again

BELMONT — The Shaker Regional School Board agreed to allow the Save the Gale School Committee continue exploring possible uses for the historic but now empty building.

Committee member Ken Knowlton said the board seemed interested in preserving the Gale School with an eye to possibly using the relocated school as a public library.

"The didn't say no," Knowlton said, commenting last week on his appearance before the board. "We are interpreting that they like the idea and want to see more."

"They agreed that the research (done by the Save the Gale School Committee) could continue," confirmed Superintendent Maria Dreyer.

Knowlton said one of the School Board's biggest concerns was moving the school — now located on the edge of Bryant Park, behind the Middle School — only to see it abandoned again in a new location.

The Shaker Regional School District owns the Gale School. It also owns the corner lot near the Middle School that borders on Concord Street — the proposed site for any relocation. Knowlton said his initial idea would be for the library to lease the land from the School District.

Knowlton, former School Board member Pret Tuthill, Diane Marden, and Wallace Rhodes are the core of the Save The Gale School Committee. In the past few months, they have taken a two-pronged approach toward saving the 1890's school, with Knowlton and Tuthill working with the School Board and Marden and Rhodes working with the Library Trustees.

Marden and Rhodes made a similar presentation in September to the Belmont Public Library Trustees at the same time Tuthill and Knowlton were meeting with the School Board. Library Trustee Chair Mary Louise Charnley said last week that the trustees listened to their presentation but haven't had a chance to review or discuss it.

She said now that a librarian has been hired, she expects the trustees to have some kind of public discussion regarding the Save the Gale School Committee proposal at one of their upcoming meetings.

In the committee's mind, relocating the school to the corner lot and making it into the Belmont Public Library is a win for both — the Middle School gets better use of the land behind it and the library gets a chance to expand.

When Knowlton was asked if there was a "Plan B" should the library not want to relocate, he said the Save the School Committee "would cast a wide net" for potential users.

Knowlton said the next step is to go before the Board of Selectmen to update them on the committee's work.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 January 2014 12:17

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