Forum on Stockbridge Old Town Hall long on ideas, short on answers

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STOCKBRIDGE — The fate of the historic Old Town Hall remains in question following a two-hour forum on Tuesday that yielded multiple proposals for its reuse, but no source for funding a restoration that could cost $3 million or more.

The 1839 building, which includes Procter Hall, housed town government and the police station until the former Stockbridge Plain School was revamped as a new home for both in 2008. It has been vacant ever since.

Complicating potential solutions is the building's ownership by the adjacent First Congregational Church, which has leased to the town since it was built. The "in perpetuity" lease was revised in 1902 and the building was altered significantly shortly thereafter.

The Monday night forum attended by nearly 50 residents included a description of the site's complex legal status by Selectman Steven Shatz, who stressed that only a town meeting could resolve the future of the building.

Barney Edmonds, chairman of the Stockbridge Housing Authority, suggested a mixed-use project, possibly affordable housing, and strongly opposed demolition, a "horrible" outcome, as he put it.

The Berkshire Waldorf School, currently housed downtown, would be eager to rent the facility, said board member Teresa O'Brient.

Congregational Church official Bronly Boyd acknowledged that "the church wants to protect its piece, but we have come to some agreement to support an appropriate use once the church understands what that use is. We don't want a movie theater, we don't want a dance hall." Any decision would have to be approved by the church's members.

"If someone has the money and the appropriate use for the building, the church will stand there with the town," he added.

"It's an expensive proposition," Boyd said. "I can only speculate that the church may have to let the building sit there and fall into the basement. The church doesn't have the money to tear it down. Perhaps we could sell it, but no one has come forward to say they'd like to buy it."

The church has the right to terminate the lease since the Old Town Hall has not been used for municipal purposes since 2008 but it has not chosen to exercise that right. The town also has a right to end the lease, leaving the site "as is" for the church to deal with, but only by a town meeting vote.

Informal proposals to the town for a reuse of the property, which is in a residential district, reached a dead end, Shatz pointed out, in part because the church owns the land and 28 parking spaces. Religious or educational uses would be permitted under state law.

The key issue is whether the community can decide whether the building is worth preserving, restoring for a new use and "where does the money come from," Shatz said. The funding issue is "directly related to who owns it," he said. "We have to address the ownership issue; we can't duck it."

According to retired Judge Fredric C. Rutberg, who lives across from the Old Town Hall, the building "is an albatross for the town in terms of this very unusual conundrum of who owns it. The town would have to pay to renovate it and then have to rely on a tenant to pay rent for a long period of time to get that money back. A long-term lease at any kind of market rent is probably a fantasy."

He proposed turning the site into a "beautiful public park, something that reflects the history of the town." Rutberg questioned the availability of funding for renovating the building, given the restrictions on its use.

As chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, Carl Sprague cited the town's bylaw governing historic buildings and cautioned that any proposal to demolish the Old Town Hall would be "very strongly opposed and we will do everything we possibly can to tie that up."

Thomas Stokes, a member of a committee that studied new uses for the building several years ago, suggested that while a total renovation is unaffordable, new life for the building could be found "pretty much the way it is now, with an upstairs meeting room and some type of offices downstairs."

However, he conceded, "obviously that too would be hugely expensive" because of state and local code deficiencies and the need to make it ADA-compliant. Stokes proposed a study by the Community Preservation Committee "to come up with a minimal baseline for what that number would be. From there, we'd be in a better position to explore options."

But Shatz responded that an open-ended study would "virtually guarantee that five years from now, we will have gone nowhere. The reuse has to be identified."

Longtime resident Terry Flynn argued that the building and its village green have been "a central site for community activities for generations. If local history or a local community is to mean anything, this really is a central part of it."

"We can't do a lot of work or sell a building that we, the town, don't own," Select Board Chairman Charles Gillett said. "We need to remember that this is really complicated."

In his view, "the whole thing comes down to finances. Does the town want to pay to buy the building and the land, and then put the building back into some shape, 'as is,' pay for the electricity and heat, and basically subsidize whatever is in that building? That's the real question, whether the town wants to do all of those things and, frankly, put it on your tax bill."

Nevertheless, he emphasized, "we need to do something sooner rather than later."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

In their own words ...

Comments from Monday night's public forum at the Stockbridge Town Offices on the future of the Old Town Hall:

"We know there are going to be very significant hurdles to make this thing work. But this building is so important to our cultural history, it's such a landmark, that we ought to start not with the premise of why it can't work, but how can we put our best thoughts together to find something that will make it work. ... We can take a new look at this, and we might find some happy surprises."

— Resident Thomas Stokes

"One of the possible outcomes is we do nothing, and we just kick the can down the road and revisit this five years from now. If that's the choice of the town, so be it. We can live with that."

— Selectman Stephen Shatz

"We have a lot of students and young families who can't afford housing. If it was at all feasible, that might be something that would be very usable for the community."

— Craig Moffatt, home builder, former member of the Affordable Housing Committee

"Whatever we do, the conversation has to be done in good will, and it has to be done with the same kind of vision that the people had 170 years ago — how do we make it a community site that best serves all the people who choose to call this amazing place home."

— The Rev. Brent Damrow, pastor, First Congregational Church


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