BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — A local nonprofit group will assume ownership of the historic T.L. Riley (TLR) mill complex, a former 19th century paper mill, to facilitate the property’s environmental cleanup for future development.
On Tuesday, the Rockingham Selectboard approved the lease of the TLR complex, located in Bellows Falls Historic Riverfront Park to Sustainable Valley Group, a nonprofit development company who will oversee the Brownfield cleanup of the property, the next key phase in effort to repurpose the historic buildings.
Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox said the town still hopes to repurpose the TLR buildings as part of the proposed Connecticut River Heritage Center, which would combine destination-type activities to draw tourism and visitors with a hub for businesses and economic development.
Rockingham has targeted these buildings for preservation and repurposing since their inclusion in the town’s 2003 master plan. But the Brownfield contamination on the property, discovered shortly after the town took ownership of the complex in the late 1990s, remains unaddressed.
“One way or another, once contamination is identified by law it has to be remediated,” Fox said.
The Bellows Falls Historical Society, the previous leaseholders, had begun the work to raise funds for the cleanup in 2016, but the society now needs to prioritize their fundraising for the restoration of Adams Grist Mill, which holds their museum collection, according to Fox.
“The [Adams Grist Mill] is starting to deteriorate,” Fox said. “There’s about $300,000 to $350,000 needed to get that building into shape and to be a working grist mill museum.”
Sustainable Valley Group will work with the Windham Regional Commission to secure funds for an environmental assessment and Brownfield cleanup of the property.
Under the lease agreement, Sustainable Valley Group will assume a temporary “ownership” of the property. Fox said this ownership status is necessary for the development group to be able to apply for cleanup grant funds from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally this ownership releases the town from liability from the property.
The lease is effective for a five-year period and includes an annual rent of $1.
Fox said there are still unresolved questions about the stability of the TLR buildings. In September 2019 the town applied for grant funds to stabilize the two primary buildings of the complex but was not awarded the funds.
In a separate motion, the Rockingham Selectboard approved the conditional donation of a historic 19th century paper machine to Sustainable Valley Group for the purpose of making into a historical exhibit.
David Deacon, a history professor from SUNY Oswego in New York, described these paper machines as “large and complex machines” at Tuesday’s board meeting. While the massive drying cylinders are the most “visually striking component, their intrinsic mechanisms are arguably even more fascinating.
The paper machine has been stored in a gravel pit since 2003 when the machine was removed from the former International Paper Mill building due to the discovery of asbestos.
The machine will now be moved from the pit to an outside storage area near the TLR complex. Depending on the completion of the Connecticut River Heritage Center, the machine will be incorporated into either an indoor or outdoor exhibit that showcases Bellow Fall’s significant history as one of the most prominent paper and newsprint manufacturers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Our industrial heritage is our town’s most important asset,” Fox told The Eagle Times on Tuesday. “We want to be able to preserve it and share it with future generations of Bellows Falls residents.”
Rockingham Selectboard Vice-Chair Peter Golec, though initially worried about donating the culturally-valuable machine, said he supported the intended plan for the artifact.
“I’m glad to see it’s going to do something besides sit there and rust,” Golec said.
The board added a condition to the motion, upon Golec’s suggestion, that the machine must be incorporated into an exhibit.
Golec said he wanted insurance that the town would not lose access to the artifact in the event the TLR project fails to come to fruition.