To The Daily Sun,
The question for Belknap Mill Society members is: "Do you want to assure the future of the Society and are you willing to get involved to shape that future?"
The trustees of the Belknap Mill Society have been attempting to sell the Belknap Mill since mid-2014 without first consulting the Society members. Finally, in response to a request by the Laconia City Council, the trustees scheduled a meeting held at 7:30 a.m. on Jan 14 for the purpose of defending their actions to Society members and to solicit input from Society members. The trustees said they would review the input by the Society members and respond at the February annual meeting of the Society.
The root problem with the Society is that we have no plan for sustainable operation of the mill. We need a 1-year plan to prevent bankruptcy in 2015 (the Society is presently insolvent), a 2-year plan to bring the Society back to solvency, and a 5-year plan to achieve financial sustainability. The "Sell the Mill" approach is warped. Advocates state that the proceeds of the sale could be used for the operation of the Society — which is true to a point — but the Society will eventually use up that money, and then what? Selling the mill building is only a stopgap effort. Also, it's problematic if the mill can find a buyer since there is a toxic-pill in the easements that stipulates that the first and third floors be accessible to the public and the power house must be left intact. This toxic-pill would seem to make the city or the county the only potential buyers, which then makes it a political issue. We must develop a plan for sustainability — nothing else makes sense. And yet the trustees, by their own admission, have been, and will continue to ignore, planning-for-sustainability until the mill gets sold. Had we planned for sustainability two or three years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today.
I left the Jan. 14 meeting feeling that, despite the many thoughtful and capable Society members who attended the meeting (I counted four Society past-presidents), the trustees will follow the same-old path. Why do I feel this way? Well, the meeting was forced on the trustees by the Laconia City Council in order to get the council to consider their request for financial-aid to the mill, and the meeting was organized to placate the council's request, not as a working meeting to address the real issues. 7:30 a.m. is not a convenient time for most people, and limiting the meeting to one hour and cutting off comments from people who wanted to contribute is not being receptive to member's concerns. At the meeting, the trustees only reluctantly agreed to allow Society members (who, incidentally elect the trustees) to attend trustee meetings. I say that "members elect the trustees", but, In fact, no annual meeting for elections was held last year, and therefore no vote was taken on Trustees — a clear violation of the Society by-laws, and yet another instance of the unconcern by the trustees for the members.
I think it was a revelation to most attendees that the mill borrowed $50K against a lien on the building last year in order to avoid bankruptcy. We will, apparently, use up that $50K sometime in May. It's unlikely that the mill will be sold and the proceeds available by May, so the Society will again be faced with either bankruptcy or borrowing more money. Actually, borrowing money against a lien on the building is selling it piece-by-piece. To that extent, we've already sold $50K of the mill.
The Society has no vision for the mill's future, and no plan for sustainability, and is not working on either. It appears that if Society members want to sustain the mill's operation, they will have to invoke change. That change need take the form of directing the trustees to produce a plan for sustainability – if the trustees are not supportive of attaining sustainability, it won't happen. The present board is not only locked into selling the mill to the city as their only plan, but, in my opinion, do not have the knowledge or experience to prepare and execute future planning. In 2012, the mill purchased a "plan" from an outside consulting firm, an admission that the trustees were incapable of planning. The trustees now say the plan they paid for is of little or no value. Actually, although it was called a "plan", it was really a "road-map" that required planning and execution to implement, planning and execution which never happened.
In addition to directing the trustees to develop a sustainability plan, the members must be willing to lend their own time and skills. A mechanism for doing this would be to create a development committee made up of two members of the trustees, the managing director, and four-or-five non-trustee members of the Society who are versed in planning and fund-raising and are willing to contribute concerted effort to turn-around the mill's financial situation. In addition, the mill needs a volunteer group who can staff fund-raising activities that become a part of the plan.
I believe that if the Society members do not take action at the annual meeting in February, it will be too late to save the Society, which would mean putting at risk programs such as the fourth grade program, Arts Alive, and the summer concerts, as well as any future programs that the Society might develop. I believe these programs are worth saving. Do you? Society members, are you willing to get involved to shape the future of the Belknap Mill Society?