03312021 Bellows Falls Bench Memorial Park

A stone bench dedicated to late local firefighter Terry B. Brown shines in the afternoon sun adjacent to another identical bench dedicated to late fellow firefighter Dana Fuller in downtown Bellows Falls, Vt., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — The Town of Rockingham will turn to a new congressional earmark program in Washington, D.C., in hopes to secure federal funding for two key economic-development projects: the restoration of Vilas Bridge and property development around the Amtrak station in Bellows Falls and the historic Hotel Windham.

A joint body of the Rockingham Selectboard and Bellows Falls Trustees, by a majority voice vote, approved two resolutions authorizing Municipal Manager Scott Pickup to submit two project requests to Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) for funding consideration by Congress. A new congressional program dubbed “community funding project opportunities” allows each member of Congress to submit 10 projects for funding through a congressional earmark.

One of Rockingham’s project requests is for $11 million to restore and reopen Vilas Bridge, which has been closed for 12 years. This project is the town’s greater priority as this bridge would return a once-important connector between New Hampshire and the Island, an industrial area that Rockingham is targeting for new business start-ups.

New Hampshire legally owns Vilas Bridge but is only willing to contribute a 50-50 fund match to repair the bridge, the cost of which is now estimated at over $10 million and according to Pickup could cost up to $14 million in the future.

Pickup explained the request of $11 million was somewhat strategic. Given the future uncertainty of New Hampshire’s funding commitment, Pickup said that if Rockingham could secure 80% of the funds, New Hampshire may be more receptive to funding the remaining 20%.

A second request is asking for $6 million from a federal program for “intermodal transportation projects” to develop property surrounding the former Bellows Falls railroad station and the Hotel Windham, which had once been a central lodging for railroad travellers.

Rockingham could use this funding to make transit related upgrades to the property, which could include roads, sidewalks, parking lots, or street lighting.

“These funds would allow [one] to take care of the development that hasn’t taken place for decades, without which the private investors would never be able to make their money back,” Pickup told the joint board. “This is an opportunity to get over that threshold.”

The Hotel Windham was added to the request because it falls within the zone targeted for development and, as a former hotel for the railroad station, has historical connections to transit. According to Development Director Gary Fox, the two top floors of the hotel will require extensive renovation to potentially reopen for residential use, whether as apartments or hotel lodging. The federal funds could not go toward this part of the project, but the town can make the “external” improvements needed to attract investors.

Some joint members of the board expressed reservation about the property development project given that each property is privately owned.

In an interview with The Eagle Times, Fox explained that bringing these buildings back into use benefits the public greatly.

With the hotel closed there is less foot traffic downtown than there could potentially be, Fox said. Additionally, buildings not in use do not contribute to the tax base and put more burden upon the local taxpayers.

Approving the resolution does not bind the selectboard or the trustees to approve any of these projects even if federal funds are rewarded. Receiving the federal funds would then allow the town to “work on the nuts and bolts” of a proposal, including the other funding components, which the elected officials could then discuss and decide whether or not to support, Fox said.

Pickup also assured the boards that, per his conversations with Welch’s representatives, submitting the second request for transportation-related development will not compete with the request for Vilas Bridge funding. Welch’s representatives had recommended the town submit both requests because doing so would put both projects onto lists for funding considerations, including future grants over the next five years.

“Congressman Welch knows that Vilas Bridge is our number one priority,” Pickup said.

Fundraising continues for memorial to fallen firefightersA joint body of the Rockingham Selectboard and Bellows Falls Trustees took time on Tuesday to discuss a new artist rendering of a proposed memorial for fallen firefighters Terry Brown and Dana Fuller, who died during rescue efforts at the Star Hotel (also known as the Hotel Windham), which burned down on December 29, 1981.

Pickup said that statues representing Brown and Fuller have been ordered and the design for the park has been vetted.

“We are really at a point now where this is going to become a real project,” Pickup said.

Currently the park contains two stone benches, donated by the Lion’s Club, to commemorate Brown and Fuller. The new memorial, which will include a placard detailing the event and Brown’s and Fuller’s sacrifice, is aimed to tell their story, explained Bellows Falls Fire Chief Shaun McGinnis.

“The idea is to make an inviting space to tell their story and a place for people to go and be together,” McGinnis told The Eagle Times on Wednesday.

The Fire Department has so far raised thousands of dollars in donations from residents, businesses and community supporters, including $6,500 from a fundraiser kickoff event last fall.

A new GoFundMe fundraiser launched on Tuesday has raised an additional $2,750 as of Wednesday afternoon.

Construction is expected to begin this spring though a start date has not been finalized.

Pickup said the Town plans to schedule an outdoor dedication ceremony in the fall, possibly in October.

This December will mark the fortieth anniversary of the fire and the loss of Brown and Fuller.

To learn more or make a contribution to the fundraiser please visit gofund.me/5ef2f7b4.

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