BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — By a unanimous decision the Rockingham Selectboard authorized the town to apply for $340,000 in combined community development block grants (CDBG) to stabilize the two historic T.L. Riley buildings and update their plans for end use.
Town Development Director Gary Fox and Issac Wagner, a development consultant, presented the project to the selectboard at a public hearing on Tuesday. The selectboard authorized Fox and Wagner to apply for two grants provided by the Vermont Community Development Program. One grant request for $300,000 will provide structural stabilization to the Moore and Russell Mill buildings, located on 14 and 16 Mill Street, which require immediate repair if the town expects to salvage them.
“If we don’t do something new those buildings aren’t going to be around much longer,” said Town Manager Wendy Harrison. “And they are significant to our history.”
The two buildings, now owned by the town, were once home to the International Paper Company and were structurally connected to the Bellows Falls Canals, Harrison said.
Fox said that the stabilization work will keep the structures in place until their renovation begins, which can take a period of five years to prepare.
The second grant, requesting $40,000, would be to update the end-use plan for each building.
Both buildings were part of the town’s 2003 master plan, which had included key projects such as the Riverfront Trail, Fox said. While some of the proposed projects for the buildings have already been implemented, some plans and partners for the surrounding area have changed. Fox said that they want to combine components of the 2003 plan with those developed by the influential Vermont architect Michael Singer, to create the Connecticut River Heritage Center.
The Connecticut River Heritage Center would combine destination-type activities to draw tourism and visitors with a hub for businesses and economic development.
“Whenever people talk to me about what we need for economic activity, they say these two things,” Fox said. “One is jobs and businesses, so one of these buildings will be set up for small businesses. And the other is more destination activities, to bring people to help leverage some of our other assets.”
Fox estimated that the future renovation and repurposing of these two buildings will cost $3 — 5 million, some of which could be funded through additional block grants and opportunity zone investments. However, that phase would be several years away and also require the updated end-use plan, which Fox wants to complete.
Both grants require a local matching contribution of 10%, resulting in contributions of $33,000 for the first grant and $4,400 for the second. Harrison said the plan is to fund the $33,000 through a Phase II Environmental Site Assessment paid for and managed by the Windham Regional Commission, and the town would cover the $4,400 by providing the grant-related administrative work for these projects.
Harrison said that, in the event that the Windham Regional Commission does not fund the environmental assessment, the town would take the money from its revolving loan fund, which currently holds $425,000.
Fox, however, said he is fairly confident that the Windham Regional Commission will fund the environmental assessment. The commission had already funded this assessment last year when the Rockingham Historical Society had applied for it, but the historical society was unable to move the project forward due to being stretched to capacity on other downtown projects.
Harrison send that was why the town is providing the administrative work for the local contribution, because the town has the resources that the historical society did not.
Even if the town had to draw from its revolving loan fund, Fox said that the investment would still be worth the cost.
“The environmental issues are going to be there whether we turn it into a useful, productive property or let it fall in,” Fox said. “It needs to be cleaned up. It’s on our waterfront and in our downtown.”