BARRE — One of the oldest buildings in downtown Barre could soon house a satellite program to meet the educational needs of some of its youngest residents, or serve as recreational space for local teens.
There is a third proposal for use of a portion of the historic Wheelock Building, but the woman who submitted it has asked City Manager Steve Mackenzie not to release it until he answers two questions to her satisfaction.
Sue Higby, executive director of Studio Place Arts, wants to know whether signage for the use she has in mind can be placed on the front of the city-owned structure and whether there is “front door access” to the space that remains available in the rear of the building. “… Until the questions are answered properly, I will not be able to determine whether or not I can move forward with the proposal,” Higby wrote in a Wednesday morning email to Mackenzie. “For that reason, I do not want the proposal to be made public at this point.”
Heading into Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Mackenzie had treated all three proposals, which were submitted as part of a competitive process, as confidential. His determination provoked gentle push-back from Mayor Lucas Herring, who wondered whether the manager was being overly cautious as councilors discussed how to handle the proposals they solicited.
Mackenzie acknowledged that was possible and agreed to release the proposals absent an objection from the organizations that submitted them.
Mackenzie received that permission from Kristen Martin of the Montessori School of Central Vermont as Tuesday’s council meeting was coming to a close and from Herring, who the Washington Youth Service Bureau to prepare a budget for a teen center he has suggested. He didn’t get in from Higby who hinted before Tuesday’s meeting she might withdraw the proposal she submitted and said Wednesday its viability depends on the answers to questions she has asked twice.
Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Higby said she expects those answers to come from Mackenzie, noting the ones supplied at his request by subordinates were insufficient.
While Heather Grandfield, the city’s permits administrator, has indicated a sign on the front of the building is “possible,” Higby said she needs more information. She said the same is true of the possibility of using the front entrance of the building.
Mackenzie deferred the latter question to Jeff Bergeron, the city’s director of buildings and community services. In a Monday email that was copied to Higby, Bergeron indicated he was “a little leery” about allowing those destined for the rear of the building to “pass through” the storefront the council agreed to the Barre Partnership.
Councilors formally approved that no-rent lease, Tuesday night, while authorizing Mackenzie to determine its duration. Among other things, the Partnership has agreed to pay one-third of the utility bills for the building and the oversee a “welcome center” that will be established for tourists.
The council followed up its approval of the lease with the Partnership, by agreeing to entertain presentations on the three proposals for the balance of the Wheelock Building when it meets on Oct. 22. That, they agreed, would give residents time to react to the ideas, while providing those that proposers an opportunity to discuss their plans in more detail.
The only question is whether Higby will accept that invitation, or withdraw the proposal she submitted. Higby said she couldn’t answer that question on Wednesday and would wait for Mackenzie to respond to her latest inquiry.
Based on the two proposals officially in the running to use the rear portion of the Wheelock Building its next incarnation will likely be markedly different from its last two. Once the decades-long home of a center for Barre’s most seasoned citizens, the iconic building’s last tenant was a cooperative antiques business that closed last year. These newly released proposals contemplate serving a much younger population.
The proposal submitted by Martin, who is the veteran head of school for the Montessori School of Central Vermont, would avert a space crunch at the Pine Hill Road property it purchased from the Knights of Columbus three years ago.
Due to a surge in enrollment at an independent alternative school that started in Plainfield 20 years ago and now serves children from toddlers to 12 year olds, the proposal calls for creating an off-site classroom for up to three years.
Anticipating more than 30 students in its elementary program and unable to finance an addition to its Pine Hill Road property at this time, Martin indicated the 2,100 square feet of space available in the Wheelock Building would be an economical short term alternative that is consistent with the school’s vision of becoming an anchor in the community. Located within walking distance of the Aldrich Public Library, the Vermont History Center, and Studio Place Arts, the Wheelock Building’s downtown location would increase exposure for Montessori principles and philosophy in Barre while increasing accessibility to all children.
The school has a limited budget for the space – $600- to $1,000-a-month – that it will need starting next August.
The other proposal outlines a draft budget for the teen center Herring has suggested could fill the vacant space, while addressing a long-standing complaint among local youth.
Creating a sustainable downtown drop-in center would come at a cost, according to the budget prepared by Krieg Pinkham, executive director of the Washington County Youth Service Bureau. Pinkham pegged the annual operating budget at roughly $113,500 with more than half of that – approximately $68,000 – tied to salaries and benefits for staff.
Herring has expressed interest in exploring ways to help cover those costs, while noting he can’t aggressively pursue grants without first locking down space for a teen center.
In recent months councilors have been receptive to the teen center proposal, but, at Herring’s urging, agreed to solicit alternative proposals before making a decision. Both proposals – and possibly the one submitted by Higby – will be discussed in more detail when the council meets on Oct. 22.