Vt Granite Museum forum asks the hard questions
Mark Collier / Staff Photo Regan Howard listens intently as the members of her working group discuss ideas for the future of the Vermont Granite Museum during a public forum Thursday at the former Jones Brothers building in Barre.
BARRE — The idea of creating a museum to celebrate the multifaceted story of Barre’s granite industry has stood the test of time, according to those at a forum designed to restart a community conversation about how to advance the stalled project.
Thursday night’s forum was a good first step, according to museum organizers, who had begun to wonder whether the community was still behind the idea, born out of an economic development summit in 1994.
That idea — creating a Barre tourist attraction that would provide a jolt to the local economy — sparked a capital campaign that raised more than $6 million and resulted in the acquisition and renovation of two city properties before running out of steam several years ago.
The roughly 70 forum participants were treated to a quick history lesson about the project, urged to consider its future, and asked to answer a threshold question before breaking into small groups to brainstorm about what could be.
Bob Pope, president of Rock of Ages Corp. and a member of the Vermont Granite Museum board, provided the history lesson and popped the question: “Is this (museum) as important as it was, and, if so, how do we get there?”
Given the passage of time and the uncertain path to achieving an 18-year-old goal, Pope acknowledged minds might have changed.
“It’s a legitimate question,” he said.
Mayor Thomas Lauzon, who said he “came to listen,” answered Pope’s question before it was even asked, suggesting that Barre’s rich history — a multicultural tale that is as much about art and immigrants as it is about industry and innovation — is rooted in granite.
“I think it’s a story that deserves to be told,” said Lauzon. “No matter where my day goes … I’m constantly reminded of just how much the whole granite industry has given us, not only in Barre but in our state and the United States.”
Lauzon said he envisioned “a collaborative, multiyear effort” that would require the support of Barre, Barre Town, the Barre Granite Association and several other organizations.
“I think there’s something in this project for everyone,” he said.
There was Thursday night when forum participants shared a wide range of opinions about how best to get from here to there when it comes to the museum and expressed some differences about what “there” might look like.
The massive former Jones Brothers building that’s envisioned as the museum’s site — and which once housed what was touted as the world’s largest monumental works — would be a perfect home for a community theater, one resident said. Another suggested a revenue-generating restaurant and brewery might be an interesting addition. Others wondered whether creating open studio space for sculptors could serve as a low-budget attraction in the interim.
There were lots of ideas, though some — like the installation of an Olympic-size swimming pool — had less to do with granite than others.
However, there were no vocal rock tossers in the group, which largely viewed the partly renovated stone shed and the 11 riverside acres on which it sits as an underutilized resource.
Several were receptive to hiring a full-time executive director to handle everything from fundraising and planning to managing volunteers and community outreach. It is unclear where funding to revive that position, which was eliminated several years ago, would come from, though members of the museum board view it as a priority.
There was far less support for pouring a 19,000-square-foot concrete floor in the unfinished portion of the Jones Brothers building as a next step, though some participants acknowledged the need to create restrooms to attract tour buses.
“Collaboration” was a frequently used word, and some suggested the proposed museum should be considered as part of a broader Barre experience that would include Hope Cemetery, the Old Labor Hall and the Vermont History Center.
Pope sought to dispel myths and misconceptions about the project, which hasn’t moved as swiftly as some would like but has made a detectable difference in the community.
According to Pope, the board erased an eyesore that once stood just beyond the “Welcome to Barre” sign on the Barre-Montpelier Road when it restored the former Jones Brothers building.
“If it doesn’t end up as a museum, are we worse off as a community?” he asked, reminding those in attendance that the board also acquired and restored the historic train station on Depot Square — a property that includes 100 parking spaces crucial to the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts.
Pope also reminded forum participants that the initial price tag for the museum was $12 million — nearly double the amount the board has raised in grants, donations and a $1 million bond approved by Barre voters 12 years ago.
“You don’t fly to the moon when you barely have half the money,” he said.
Although he and other granite manufacturers are supportive of the idea, Pope stressed it was initially suggested as a way to attract tourists to Barre.
“This is not a marketing tool for the granite industry. It is a marketing tool for the community,” he said.
Members of the museum board, who received a round of applause from forum participants, plan to compile information from the forum and an online survey as they decide how to proceed.
According to Pope, restoring the “positive vibe” about the museum was considered a crucial first step.
“We could use more board members, (and) we could use more cheerleaders,” he said.
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