After years of study and a determination by town officials that Academy School should not be sold, town residents had their say Monday night about the venerable old building that sits in an important and strategic location, between the town's thriving restaurant/retail district and the town green, and in the hearts and minds of people in town.
During the public hearing at Memorial Town Hall, another historic building nearby Academy School, several residents expressed concern about the cost of retaining the property and the wisdom of forgoing the boost to town coffers that would come with the sale of the building. But most seemed content to accept the Board of Selectmen's decision to retain the building rather than sell it, and to dream about the possibilities.
Jack Davis, one of the largest property owners in town, urged his fellow Madison residents to dream big.
"The devil is in the details"
Gesturing to his fellow attendees at the public hearing, some of whom had just spoken about legal or financial concerns related to the building, he said, "I'm going to muddy the waters a wee bit."
"That's shocking, Jack," said Selectman Joe MacDougald, to good-natured laughter from some of the more than 40 people who attended the hearing, many of whom were familiar with Davis' affable and candid public speaking style.
"The devil is in the details," Davis said. "I would rather think about it in a bigger context. We have to envision what Madison wants to be. How do we want to look in the future? How is this going to affect the flow of traffic ... to downtown?"
Seeking a solution ideal for the town's character
Davis said he would like to see a solution that is both unique and ideal for the town's character. He was one of several to say that financial considerations should not be paramount. He urged town residents and town officials to take the same approach he and others at Davis Realty take when dealing with some of their key commercial tenants.
"When we look at tenants, it's not just 'how much money will you pay us?' We ask ourselves what is important in town? Will you be welcome here? Will you be a benefit to this town? The context is, what do we want to be?"
Davis said he had been traveling recently and was tired, but that he made sure he was at the public hearing. He commended others for being there as well, saying they were helping to determine the future of the town center.
"Let's start generating some fantasy notions"
"Let's start generating some fantasy notions as to what we could do to make this downtown come alive from one end to another," he said. "We can come up with some good ideas. We don't have stupid people here in Madison. Look at you, you're here tonight. Enough said. I'll sit down."
Davis' comments were applauded by his fellow attendees at the meeting.
Selectman Diane Stadterman noted several decisions had been made, including that the building will not be used by the Scranton Memorial Library, that it likely is unsuitable for moderately priced senior housing, and that the town has decided it wanted to retain it.
"The first hurdle of a fairly long race"
Other than that, she said, the meeting Monday was just an initial step in what will likely be a long process of evaluating different options for the building. "This is just the first hurdle of a fairly long race," she said. "This is the first time we have come to the conclusion that the town wants to retain the building. What we want to do with it is the second hurdle." She said that would require more time, more studying, and likely another building committee.
Henry Butun, who lives on Neck Road, said he did not like that so many things seemed to be already determined.
"Diane is talking to me the way my mother used to talk to me when I was a kid," he said. "This gentleman said don't worry about the money (gesturing to Jack Davis who was sitting nearby), but I worry about money."
Senior housing favored by several attendees
First Selectman Fillmore McPherson noted that the uses that had been excluded from consideration had been excluded for practical reasons or, quite simply, because the numbers didn't work out.
Briana Benn-Mirandi was one of several meeting attendees who expressed a preference for senior housing at the beginning of the meeting. She later said that multi-use also seemed like a viable option. She said it was her understanding that an assisted living facility had expressed an interest in exploring the building's possibilities.
McPherson said the town had not ruled out the possibility of lease to an outside entity, which conceivably could include an extended care facility, but he noted that moderately priced housing of any kind does not seem to be a viable option financially.
Affordable housing in demand
Others at the meeting talked about the importance of the building, in which generations of town residents had been educated when it was a school. They expressed frustration that it's taken so long to make a decision and that the building appears to be deteriorating. One attendee noted that affordable housing--ideal for people with moderate incomes like teachers, police officers, and firefighters--is in demand in town.
Selectman Stadterman said the size of the Academy building would allow for only about 15 units of housing. "I thought senior housing was a great idea until I looked at the numbers," she said.
Selectman MacDougald admitted that the availability of affordable senior housing is perceived as a problem in town, and that it is an issue that should be addressed. "That is a problem to solve. But this is the wrong tool for that job," he said.
"There are so few opportunities to increase our revenues"
Barbara Davis said she was surprised that the option of selling the building was taken off the table at this point. She said that she believes the sale of the building could add $500,000 a year to the town's coffers.
"There are so few opportunities to increase our revenues," she said.
McPherson and some of the other selectmen noted that, while $500,000 is a considerable sum, that the sale of the building would add revenue for one year, and then no more. "It's a one and done," McPherson said.
Financial gain not the only consideration for town officials
MacDougald also noted that the sale of the building would not enhance the town's revenues over the long run. And he added that financial gain for the town is not his only consideration.
"That's not why I'm opposed to" the sale of the building, he said. He said he was more concerned about the impact of development on that part of town, and what additional development might do to parking in that part of town, for example.
"It's not just the budget piece," he said. He noted that one possiblity might be to move town offices to Academy, leaving the Town Campus site as an option for senior or affordable housing.
Like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube
"That's not as convenient a location for seniors," Barbara Davis said.
Mahlon Hale, of Middle Beach Road, said solving the problem of what to do with the Academy School Building is much "trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. You solve it, and solve it, and solve it again." He said the current recession makes it even more difficult to solve at this time.
"And it's not clear to me that we should be adding another cost center," he said. "This could be a white elephant."
"This building is a huge part of the heritage of the town"
Art Symonds of Bartlett Drive asked the selectmen to clarify their recent statements in favor of retaining the building.
"Has that decision been made" to retain the building, he asked.
McPherson said it had.
"I support that decision," Symonds said. "This building is a huge part of the heritage of the town."
Library has no interest in doing anything permanentt with Academy
Hank Robinson, a volunteer with the Scranton Memorial Library, agreed with the assessment that the school would not serve as a suitable option for expansion of the library.
"We have used the library for our book sale. We have no interest in doing anything permanent with it," he said.
Many at the meeting expressed an interest in exploring a mixed-use option for the building, one that would involve some form of cultural or performing arts as part of the solution.
"Multi-use sounds like a no-brainer"
Matt Thomas, of Bradley Corners Road, after listening to the discussion, said a mixed-use option seemed like one that should be considered.
"Multi-use sounds like a no-brainer to me. What other ideas have people come up with?" he asked.
David Kadamus, the chairman of the Ad-Hoc Academy Investigation Committee, said a whole range of uses have been discussed including meeting space, squash courts, a wellness center, a teaching center, an arts-barn like complex, arts teaching and training, and town offices for part of it.
Shoreline Arts Alliance intrigued by the possibilities
Eric Dillner, a Madison resident who is also the executive director and chief executive officer of the Shoreline Arts Alliance, said the Shoreline Arts Alliance is intrigued by the possibilities inherent in the Academy building.
The Shoreline Arts Alliance is, according to its website, "a nonprofit 501 (c)3 organization that cultivates artistic activity of the highest caliber in the central Shoreline region of Connecticut by presenting performances by local, national and international artists; by sponsoring competitions and other activities to encourage and educate artists and arts participants of all ages; by assisting affiliated arts organizations; and by helping to build the infrastructure of the arts on the Shoreline."
Dillner noted he was attending the meeting Monday night primarily in his capacity as a Madison resident who was interested in the future of the building.
"I want to know what the residents want"
"I am here as a citizen of Madison," he said. "I want to know what the residents want." He added that the possibility of an arts center as part of the solution is an intriguing notion, particularly if it serves a diverse population and could help draw people to Madison's downtown restaurant and retail district. "I'm all for that," he said. "We don't want to force it on Madison, but if the citizens want [the Shoreline Arts Alliance] to explore it, we will," he said.
He recommended that any arts use should be complementary to the Guilford Art Center in Guilford, and the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, known as The Kate, in Old Saybrook, both of which are members of the Shoreline Arts Alliance.
MacDougald said the idea of "destination development" should be considered. In other words, the town has a prime opportunity to encourage the development of something special--along the lines of Madison Arts Cinemas and R. J. Julia Booksellers--hat would draw people from all over, boosting activity in the downtown for residents of the town and surrounding area.
A thoughtful approach required for a beloved building in an important location
Emily Eisenlohr agreed that some kind of multi-use option seems attractive at this point.
"If this wasn't in such an important part of town, in the town green area, we wouldn't have this problem," she said.
As it is, she said, it makes sense to take a thoughtful approach to the problem of what to do with the Academy building, which is beloved the many people in town who see it as part of the town's heritage.
And Eisenlohr also recommended that people not get too attached to the building itself, or at least most of the building. The walls are crumbling and the essential systems are in enormous disrepair.
"We should consider keeping the facade and letting go of the rest of it," she said. "Tear the rest of if down and build something that is better suited to today."
Special appropriation requests pass due to lack of quorum
Prior to the public hearing at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, there was a special town meeting to consider two special appropriate requests.
The first was a request of $75,000 to purchase street lights from Connecticut Light & Power. The town currently rents street lights from CL&P for $88,000 per year plus the cost of electricity. Purchasing the street lights will save the town about $28,000 per hear, which will result in a 2.5 year payback on the purchase, according to the town's Energy and Efficiency Committee. The second request would provide the town with $250,000 for emergency expenditures related to Hurricane Sandy.
Both requests passed due to a lack of a quorum.
This story was corrected on Tuesday, Nov. 27th to reflect the following: Barbara Davis is longer an officer or member of the Madison Property Owners Association and she was not speaking for that organization at the meeting on Academy School. She also said that she believed that selling Academy to a developer could produce up to $500,000 PER YEAR in additional annual property tax revenue for the town.