Latest plan for Whately Center School opts to retain town ownership

With the rejection of two reuse proposals that involved selling the building, the future of the Whately Center School is now back in the hands of the town, as the Selectboard opted on Tuesday to let the school’s Visioning Committee flesh out a draft proposal to renovate it under town ownership.

With the rejection of two reuse proposals that involved selling the building, the future of the Whately Center School is now back in the hands of the town, as the Selectboard opted on Tuesday to let the school’s Visioning Committee flesh out a draft proposal to renovate it under town ownership. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-27-2024 2:01 PM

WHATELY — With the rejection of two reuse proposals that involved selling the building, the future of the Whately Center School is now back in the hands of the town, as the Selectboard opted on Tuesday to let the school’s Visioning Committee flesh out a draft proposal to renovate it under town ownership.

An ad hoc committee had previously recommended the Selectboard accept a proposal from Robert Obear, who is renovating the Blue School on Christian Lane. However, the town ultimately decided to reject Obear’s and the other proposal, which involved the town selling the 114-year-old Chestnut Plain Road building for it to be turned it into a private residence.

“We genuinely believe we have a layout or plan [that] could be far more in line with what townspeople are looking for in a multi-purpose use of the existing building,” said Center School Visioning Committee Chair Jenny Morrison, adding that the school holds meaning for so many people in town. “The long-term planning survey that just went out asks for a number of things that we believe this building can provide.”

The proposal laid out by the committee is to rehabilitate the building’s slate roof, likely using Community Preservation Act funding; pursue numerous planning and feasibility study grants; enlist a housing nonprofit to develop housing; and then pursue construction grants. At the end of the process, the committee envisions a few affordable housing units and then some sort of public space, like a cafe, to keep the historic building accessible to the public.

Once the roof is taken care of, the Center School Visioning Committee estimates the town would pay roughly $690,000 for the renovation of the building out of an approximate total of $1.09 million.

While the plan is still early in its development, Selectboard Chair Fred Baron and fellow member Julianna Waggoner said they’re encouraged by the work that was done on such short notice.

“It’s a very good proposal given that you’ve had all of two weeks to put it together,” Baron said. “My view is, I would like to give you more time to really flesh a lot of this out.”

Fellow Selectboard member Joyce Palmer-Fortune and Housing Committee Chair Catherine Wolkowicz, however, said they have concerns about the project’s viability.

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Wolkowicz said the idea of getting a nonprofit developer to take over the project is a difficult prospect, as the town is only proposing a handful of units, while other projects taken on by developers are typically 20 or more units. Sanderson Place in Sunderland, which was undertaken by Rural Development Inc., has 33 units, and a potential senior housing project in South Deerfield is looking to develop at least 25 units.

“I certainly want there to be a housing project in Whately, but I want the project to be well-funded, solid construction, not having to cut corners,” Wolkowicz said, emphasizing she isn’t against the prospect of turning it into housing. “It would be hard work to get someone to partner with us. … Affordable housing is very complex.”

The other challenge, highlighted by both Wolkowicz and Palmer-Fortune, is funding. CPA funding is available for housing, but grants are not a guarantee. Palmer-Fortune said another issue is this plan is being driven by a volunteer group, which could then end up asking for additional assistance from town staff.

“Many of the things you’re asking are things that are going to fall onto the employees of the town to do. … It’s going to be taking these resources away from other things they could be doing,” she said, noting the high costs of renovating buildings. “I worry going forward about this project taking over, sucking all the oxygen out of the [Town Offices] at 4 Sandy Lane.”

Baron said Palmer-Fortune brought up “realistic” concerns, but they are willing to give the committee six months to further develop the proposal and lock down concrete funding numbers, emphasizing the need to do the project “as close to right as we can get it.”

The Selectboard voted to have the Visioning Committee build up its proposal, 2-1, with Palmer-Fortune voting against it.

“I think it’s a value to the town,” Morrison said. “I’m looking for it to be a town resource that can provide a cafe and affordable housing in the sense that people can actually pay their rent.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.