DURHAM — Weeks after the town’s Board of Selectman appeared to reject a possible renovation and reuse of the Frances E. Korn Elementary School, the issue is again on the table and will be the subject of a town meeting later this month.
The board voted 3-0 in March to reject an offer to take possession of the former elementary school at no cost to the town, as an alternative to demolition by the Region 13 School District.
Eileen Buckheit said she circulated the petition that called for the April 26 meeting after she heard from other Durham residents who supported developing the building into a community center who were surprised by the board’s decision and did not feel heard.
According to Buckheit, there are local residents who are intimidated by the idea of speaking at a public meeting, but who are comfortable sharing their concerns with her and signing a petition. By rule, the town must put a question to a town meeting if at least 100 residents sign a petition requesting it. The petition received 118 signatures that were confirmed valid, Durham First Selectman Laura Francis told CT Examiner.
“I think that there’s a yearning for people to come together and to have a place to do that,” Buckheit said. “I think it would be a shame to demolish something like this. We will never re-build it, it would be too expensive.”
Selectman John Szewczyk said he agrees that saving the building and having a community center would both be good things, but it’s not affordable. Szewczyk said at the March meeting that it would only make sense to take over the building if the initial renovation and operating costs were close to the $700,000 it would cost to demolish the building.
Francis said she thought the costs of renovation would be closer to $3-4 million to get the building in a condition to open to the public, based on estimates given to the town in 2014 and 2018 amid previous efforts to repurpose the school. Francis told CT Examiner that the town could “shave off” some of the costs from the $7 million proposal from 2018, but the cost would still be in the millions of dollars.
“I think we have to accept that it will be multi-millions, and we have to accept that we will have to finance that,” Francis said.
Karen Cheyney said that taking over the building would give the town more time to decide what to do with it. If Region 13, which also includes Middlefield, demolishes the building, Durham residents will already be paying two-thirds of the cost.
If Durham takes possession of the school, but ultimately decides to demolish the building, town residents would be responsible for the full cost.
Cheyney said that the building could be used for storage, offsetting costs to rent space for storage, and possible future expenses.
“We are being penny wise and pound foolish to throw away a perfectly good building because we don’t know how much it is,” Cheyney said.
Francis told CT Examiner that the town could save about $60,000 in rental costs if the building was usable for storage, but that those savings would be lost to the cost of heating and cooling.
Szewczyk said he was concerned the town was taking responsibility for another building that will sit empty for years with no plan and no funding in place. He said town voters already rejected different proposals to take the building in 2008 and 2018, and that the town needs to be as transparent as possible with voters about potential costs.
“I believe you build a tax base, and then you do things like this,” Szewczyk said.
Selectman George Eames, who signed the petition to bring the question to a town meeting, said that tearing down the building would be a “travesty.” He said the town should renovate the building in phases, and that the initial costs to prevent further deterioration and to make the structure usable for storage could be far less than the estimates offered by Francis.
Any option would have an impact on the mill rate, Eames said, but there could also be private donations to defray the cost to taxpayers.
The board voted 2-1 – with Szewczyk voting against – to ask voters to approve funding for initial renovations to allow for use as storage and to maintain the structure.
Francis left the meeting Monday to see what would be possible with a hypothetical budget of $1 million.
The selectmen must bring a proposal to the Board of Finance on April 20 before taking it to a town meeting.
After the vote, Durham resident Joe Pasquale told the selectmen that he was troubled that they left the meeting with no plan and no budget for the project.
“You speak of a phased-in plan. Yet, you have no plan,” Pasquale said. “You have no phased-in plan, you have no costs for that phased-in plan. You’re under a time constraint to try to create that.”
Francis told CT Examiner that she personally thinks developing the school building into a community center is worth the cost because it is much less expensive than constructing a new building.
“It would be a community building, it would be community fortifying, it would be an amenity that the people of this town deserve,” Francis said. “But if they are not willing to pay for what it costs, then we won’t do it, because it can’t be done for any less than multi-millions of dollars. It’s just a fact.”