Hadley CPA panel delays vote on $1.24M plan for Russell School building

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-16-2023 7:25 PM

HADLEY — A comprehensive study that will detail the future use for the vacant Russell School building and the likely costs for its full-scale renovation will be completed before voters are asked to spend Community Preservation Act money on its temporary rehabilitation.

At the March 1 Select Board meeting, representatives from the Russell School Committee were advised that, before bringing a $1.24 million request for stabilizing the 1894 building to spring Town Meeting, a nonprofit foundation will evaluate the building.

Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan said a representative from Architectural Heritage Foundation of Boston can handle the work, possibly this month, to look at the building and previous studies. “I do think it’s worth exploring,” Brennan said.

Board member Molly Keegan told Courtney Meyer, chairwoman of the Russell School Committee, and fellow committee member Dan Regish she is worried that without plans it doesn’t make sense to begin committing money.

“I don’t really see a huge chance of success in getting the money for the stabilization if there’s not a good conversation about what the plan is or what the options might be,” Keegan said.

“I really think you need some numbers for Town Meeting,” board member Randy Izer said. “The fear is we spend $1.3 and then the building sits and sits and sits.”

The discussion came after the Community Preservation Committee delayed a decision earlier in the week on whether to bring to Town Meeting the proposal for stabilizing and rehabilitating parts of the Russell School building, understanding that officials at Town Hall expressed worry that further renovation plans might not be feasible.

CPA Committee Chairwoman Mary Thayer said at the committee’s last meeting that both Brennan and buildings maintenance supervisor Gary Berg have told her that it would be appropriate to update studies and get better cost estimates for work that needs to be done on the 129-year-old building, rather than putting money immediately toward fixing the roof, foundation, retaining walls and brick.

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The committee agreed to put off its decision on the project until March 27.

More study or act now?

CPA Committee member Andy Morris-Friedman said a sensible approach is to do more legwork before putting the spending on the Town Meeting warrant.

“I think it will increase the likelihood that we get a positive Town Meeting vote, and that the project is actually started, which would be a nice change,” Morris-Friedman said.

Thayer said getting more information is not stalling the project, but ensuring the right investment is made.

“I’m hoping something might be able to be done,” Thayer said.

Regish has been critical of doing more studies that would delay the project, pointing to the Drummey Rosane Anderson Inc. report in 2019 and an Olde Mohawk Masonry & Historic Restoration Inc. report in 2013 that form the basis for the work needed.

“The work really has to get done over this summer,” Regish said, noting that there are some in town who would like to see the building fall into further disrepair.

The building, in the town center across from Town Hall, has not had a full-time tenant since Northstar Self-Directed Learning for Teens moved to Sunderland in the fall of 2015 and is beginning to have regular roof leaks.

Saving the building is preferred based on survey results in which nearly three-quarters of respondents said it was very important or somewhat important to them to save the building.

“I’m just trying to do what the town wants,” Regish said. “I know it’s a majority of people in town who want to save that building.”

Select Board member Joyce Chunglo said she worries that the need to bring the building up to code will make any long-term project unaffordable.

“I am not voting for anything that somebody from Northampton or Amherst feels that we should have this in the center of our town, when they have no say about our pocketbook,” Chunglo said.

But some of the seven members of the CPA Committee present said they are alarmed at the possibility of delaying work.

“If we don’t do this work, we’re going to end up with a pile of bricks,” said Risë Smythe-Freed.

“Let’s get off our butts and do something about it, and let’s let the people decide,” said Edwin Matuszko.

Mark Dunn said if money is not put into the building, then deterioration continues and those who want the building demolished will be on the way to getting their wish.

Andy Klepacki, though, said that if the town invests CPA money in immediate repairs, other problems might crop up, observing that the bell tower may be deteriorating.

“This is a big commitment for the town,” Klepacki said. “This could be considered a strategy that if we’re in for a penny, we’re in for a pound.”

Both Matuszko and Morris-Friedman said they would not be in favor of borrowing the $1.24 million, but would rather spend down the CPA account, which would leave it with $722,568, if voters approve the project.

“Let’s just appropriate the amount of money this guy’s asking for, and that’s it,” Matuszko said.

Historical Commission Chairwoman Diana West said there have been efforts to save the building in the past, but the idea of putting town center buildings in a local historic district previously fell on deaf ears.

“Unfortunately, the town has a history of not preserving its historical buildings, as we saw with North Hadley Hall, as we saw with the Hooker School,” West said, referencing one building sold to a private developer and the other knocked down to make way for the new town library. “I’m afraid that’s the route we’re headed on now.”

Projects moving ahead

The CPA Committee did recommend three other projects for Town Meeting.

One would be $18,000 for the preservation of Hadley samplers made by women and girls in the 18th and 19th centuries. “I feel it’s a good project,” Thayer said.

Another is $20,700 for a Lake Warner management plan, including doing a toxicity profile for future environmental cleanup. Thayer said it is important to make the pond safe for people to use.

The final $15,000 is for the Historical Commission to put up four signs outlining the town’s history, as well as updating the West Street walking tour and creating a new audio history tour.

Thayer said this project is a stretch for CPA money because interpretive projects are not usually funded.

But Morris-Friedman said other communities have paid for similar projects “and the world has not ended.” “If you don’t put history out for people to see it then they’ll never learn it, so I think it’s a worthwhile project,” Morris-Friedman said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>