Selectboard, residents discuss purchase of Black River building

Black River
Ludlow Selectboard meeting drew a large crowd to discuss purchase of the BRHS building. Photo by Sharon Huntley

LUDLOW, Vt. – The Nov. 4 Ludlow Selectboard meeting took place in the Heald Auditorium on the second floor of the town office building to accommodate a crowd of about 50 residents to discuss a very hot topic: the upcoming vote on the purchase of Black River High School building.

The Ludlow Selectboard has the option of purchasing the BRHS building from the Two Rivers Supervisory Union for $1, leaving the town responsible for ongoing maintenance and upkeep. The Selectboard established a BRHS Building Feasibility Committee to look at the building, along with included property, and make a recommendation on their findings. In early September, the committee came to the Selectboard with the recommendation that the town move ahead with the purchase. The Selectboard then scheduled the informational meeting for Nov. 4 with the vote scheduled to take place during a special town meeting, with the vote happening on the floor, Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m.

The discussion on the building vote began with Dan Buckley, who had served on a Building Feasibility Committee, stating that overall the building was in excellent shape and estimated yearly maintenance figures which included heat, electrical and custodial services would be approximately $340,000 a year. That figure would drop to between $100,000 and $150,000 per year without the custodial piece. Anticipated capital improvements include updating eight or nine remaining older windows, which would cost about $25,000.

A possible tenant for the building is a proposed Black River Independent School, which is currently working through steps to be approved by the state of Vermont and continue with fundraising efforts in order to open after the current public Black River High School and Middle School are closed, slated for June of 2020. A key concern for several citizens stemmed from the perceived viability of BRIS, asking the Selectboard what would happen if the independent school doesn’t happen.

From the beginning of his remarks on the topic, Board Chair Bruce Schmidt made clear that his decision to move forward with the purchase of the building had nothing to do with the possibility of BRIS taking over the building, rather his concern was that the town be in control of the fate of an iconic piece of real estate that serves as “an entrance to our town.”

Buckley, who serves on the TRSU board, confirmed that the School Board would not hang onto the building if the town did not purchase it. “If it does not go to the town, our plan is we will sell it to the highest bidder,” he said.

Ludlow resident Alan Meier expressed concern that Ludlow residents would now take on burden of the building alone and without knowing the tax implications. He also asked if other possible tenants had been explored and questioned who would possibly purchase the building in future.

“There’s a lot of questions that are still unanswered about doing this, and you’re asking us to make a decision next week,” he said. He also expressed concern that only a small representation of voters would be at the meeting next week.

Ludlow resident Dean Alexander said that although recent reports indicated that there were possible uses for the building, he didn’t see a need for the building and that paying expenses for many years to come could represent millions of dollars. He was also concerned that many people were out of town during stick season.

Alexander also noted that Ludlow chose to close the school but acknowledged that they were not here to talk about BRIS per se.

Questions surfaced about the timing of the vote and the format of using a special town meeting. Schmidt referred to a precedent set in 1989 to hold special town meetings in this format. “It’s a decision we inherited,” he said.

When questioned further about the timing specifically, Schmidt elaborated that the Selectboard wanted to see what the town wanted to do and move on so they could set budgets for fiscal year 2021. He also said that with the possible tenant in the independent school, they were trying to get some direction to the school as well as the Selectboard.

BRISC needs to have an identified location for their school before they can submit their paperwork to the Vermont Agency of Education for approval in order to move forward in their process.

Schmidt also said, “If it doesn’t pass and down the road we want to look at it again, that’s obviously an option too.”

Resident John Bourque asked that with the town buying the building for $1, if down the road if it became more viable as a space that they could sell, that money would come back to the town. Schmidt confirmed that was the case.

Resident Aaron Galley suggested they look at some real numbers, saying that if this raised municipal tax by $0.02 on his property valuation of $215,000, that his taxes would go up about $50. “If we foot that bill for a couple years and then decide that as a town we want to sell that building, we can do that. We’re going to come out way ahead of things versus letting the school district sell to the highest bidder. Then we have absolutely zero say in what happens to that building,” he said.

When discussion turned to how much it would cost to demolish the building, Schmidt responded, “I’d hate to think of that.”

There was discussion that surfaced about possible restrictions for use for the building including possible housing options like low-income or affordable housing or other uses. The Selectboard agreed to have more information on any restrictions for next Tuesday’s meeting.

Resident Joanne Bombadil said that the town had more ideas and resources to make good use of the building. “Bringing the school that is in the center of town into our decision-making makes a lot more sense than burdening the School Board to figure it out,” she said.

As the discussion wrapped up, Schmidt said that although they may not the answers to all the questions, they do have some basic idea of the costs of maintenance and to him it was relatively simple – that the building is going to become vacant and now they must decide what to do with it.

The vote is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Heald Auditorium, upstairs at the Ludlow Town Office. There will be a discussion prior to the vote on the floor.

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