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Society says it no longer has resources to maintain Belknap Mill, looking for new owner/partner

LACONIA — Beset with financial challenges, the Belknap Mill Society is seeking a new owner of the oldest unaltered, brick textile mill in the country and one of the first building placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When the City Council met Monday evening, Mayor Ed Engler reported that trustees "have decided, declared that they no longer view themselves as viable owners of the building." He said that the preference of the trustees was 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. If such a partnership cannot be arranged, Engler said that the trustees would offer the property for sale on the open market.

In a statement released yesterday Christine Santaniello, president of the board of trustees, said that the society "is concerned for the future of the mill" and is "looking for a partner to work with us to preserve this iconic and historic gem. We want to attempt to work with the public, so this important piece of our history stays with the public," she continued. "Yet, we have a fiduciary responsibility, so if this is not an option, we need to look elsewhere."

The mayor said that the council considered the situation serious enough to sound the public about how to address it. He announced that a "public input session" will be held during the regularly scheduled meeting of the council on Monday, December 8 beginning at 7 p.m.

Late last summer the trustees met with community leaders to brief them on the financial plight of the mill and seek their advice. In her statement, Santaniello said that "while we did not come up with a magic bullet, it was positive." Within a couple of weeks, Santaniello and members of her board met with Engler and City Manager Scott Myers in the first of several meetings at which they presented what the mayor called "a more detailed explanation of their predicament" and "pitched the idea of the city purchasing the building and forming a relationship going forward with the society."

Santaniello explained that the society relies on rents, fees, memberships and donations for its operating income, all of which have diminished in recent years. The second and fourth floors are rented to law firms, which together pay approximately $26,000 a year, while a third office on the second floor has been vacant since and employment agency moved to the Busiel Mill at One Mill Plaza several years ago. The society offers concessions on the first floor and rents the meeting room on the third floor.

The Society has all but exhausted its limited reserve for maintaining and repairing the building.

In October, the council and trustees twice met privately. Engler said that while the councilors were "sympathetic' they shrank from the city acting as "the buyer of first resort". Instead, he explained that councilors preferred to "get the word out and see if a solution will come forward." He allowed that there is a possibility the council would agree to become the buyer of last resort.

The mayor said that he shared the view of the trustees that ownership of the building should remain in public hands. "It has become our meeting place," he remarked. "It's where we go." Engler noted that the first and third floors — together half the building — are open to the public and frequently serve as venues for meetings hosted by the city or its departments. He anticipated that after divesting itself of ownership. the Society would wish to become a tenant of Mill and pursue its educational and cultural mission, an arrangement that could prove difficult to secure with a private owner.

The Belknap Mill was constructed along a bank of the Winnipesaukee River in 1823. It operated as a textile factory until 1969. When the building was scheduled to be raised, the society was formed and raised $500,000 to acquire and preserve it. The Legislature designated the mill as the Official Meetinghouse of New Hampshire in 1976.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 November 2014 01:10

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Judge considers motion to dismiss in book protest case

CIRCUIT COURT — Judge James Carroll has taken under advisement a motion to dismiss three misdemeanor charges against a Gilford man who was arrested at  Gilford School board meeting in May for allegedly disrupting the meeting.

Arguments on the motion were heard Monday morning in the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division, and Judge Carroll had not issued a ruling by the closing of the court on Monday afternoon, which had been filed on behalf of William "Billy" Baer by his attorney, Mark Sisti.

Sisti has argued that the three charges faced by Baer — two counts of breach of the peace and one count of disobeying a police officer — are unlawful because they violated his client's constitutional rights to speak his mind at a public forum.

But Gilford Town Prosecutor Eric Bredbury, in a written objection to motion to dismiss, said school board meetings are not an open air-political forum, and that the stated business of the board would not have continued unless Lt. James Leach removed Baer, who he said was disrupting the meeting.

Sisti maintains that the speech took place during a ''designated public forum'' and that Leach's order for him to leave the meeting was unreasonable and that Baer should not be punished for failure to obey a command which violates the Constitution.

Baer was at the meeting to raise objections to what he called a pornographic passage in a book, "Nineteen Minutes" by New Hampshire author Jody Picoult, a book about a school shooting at a fictional New Hampshire high school which has been on the approved reading list at Gilford High School since it was published in 2007.

He said the day after his arrest that he was disappointed that there was no forum for discussion with school officials about the book and its content at the meeting or the failure of the school district to notify parents that it had been assigned, as was the practice in previous years.

''There was no interaction. We got two minutes to speak but couldn't ask questions. There's no accountability there. They had me arrested because I went over the two minute limit. I think people should be shocked and outraged by the assault on free speech and knowing that you can be handcuffed and taken out of a public meeting like that. I've been a practicing attorney for 20 years and I've never seen anything like that,'' said Baer at the time.

Baer, who was the first to speak at a public input session that night at which comments were limited to two minutes by School Board Chairperson Sue Allen. When he verbally interrupted another town resident who was speaking at the meeting who had implied that Baer and those who supported him would be dictating what can and cannot be read in public schools, Allen called on him to ''respect the other speakers,'' to which Baer replied, ''Yeah, like you're respecting my daughter.''

Bredbury said that Allen and Superintendent Kent Hemingway motioned to Leach, using head nods that Leach apparently interpreted as a request from them to escort Baer out of the room. Although Allen continually ordered Baer to "desist" or stop talking, she never verbally requested Leach to remove him.

Baer said aloud, "Why don't you have me arrested? Why don't we do that as a civics lesson? Nice First Amendment rights, alright?" when Leach approached his seat.

Sisti's motion argues that there were less intrusive ways of maintaining order at the public meeting than having Baer removed and that Leach should have asked for Baer to quiet himself rather than arrest him.

It also maintains that at no time did Baer suggest that he had intended to cause a breach of the peace, and that the video evidence clearly shows that he was acting as a concerned citizen and participating in a controversial public comment situation.

The prosecution disagreed with that assessment, maintaining that after having been asked to desist by Allen that Baer showed ''he would not stop until police contact and would not leave unless arrested. This would imply that his purpose was to disrupt the meeting.''

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 12:31

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Fire chief: safety issues forced club closure

GILFORD — Fire Chief Steve Carrier said yesterday that the department revoked the assembly permit of the Lakes Region Cafe and Tavern, the restaurant and bar at 15 Kimball Road that features exotic dancing, because the conditions posed an risk to life safety.

Carrier said that Deputy Chief Brad Ober has been working with Will Drew, the owner of the property, and Tom Lyons, the owner of the business, since June to overcome deficiencies. "We wanted to help them get the business up and running," he said.

However, although a number of minor problems were corrected relatively quickly, Carrier said that the owner was told to submit a plan for addressing the remaining issues with a schedule for completing the work. He said that the plan they submitted bore no signature and no timetable.

Carrier said that the building, best known as the King's Grant Inn, is old and has undergone a number of conversions and renovations. Both the electrical system and gas piping, he noted were sources of concern because of questions about the qualifications of those who installed and maintained them. Carrier said that the department was especially troubled by the fire alarm system since they have no record of its being serviced.

"This is strictly a life safety issue," Carrier emphasized, explaining that the condition of the building presents a high risk of fire. He flatly dismissed suggestions that his decision to revoke the assembly permit was prompted by Drew's decision to file suit against the town, alleging that local officials violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully hindering his use of the property. "There is no retribution here," Carrier insisted.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 12:27

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Local man’s image found in Korean War Memorial

LACONIA — Retired local businessmen Abe Dadian, who was dubbed "Sergeant" by his fellow Marine and Rotarian Frank DeNormandie, himself a lieutenant colonel. Dadian served in the Marine Corps from 1952 until 1958, including a tour in Korea. 

His daughter, Christine St. Cyr, recalled that her father visited the Korean War Memorial on the Mall in Washington, which consists of a walled triangle intersecting a circle. Sandblasted onto the polished black granite walls are the images of more than 2,500 soldiers — infantrymen, sailors and airmen — who fought in the conflict, while within the triangle 19 larger-than-life, stainless steel statues represent a squad on patrol, its members, drawn from each branch of the armed forces, dressed and equipped for combat.

St. Cyr remembered that as her father scanned the images on the wall "much to his surprise he found himself looking at himself on the wall." She said that in 2010, she and her son, Devon, then a lieutenant and now a captain in the Marine Corps and who pilots Cobra attack helicopters, visited the memorial. There they found their father and grandfather pictured, toting supplies to the front.

This Veterans Day St. Cyr chose to mark the occasion by celebrating her father's service by sharing his face in the crowd.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 01:01

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