Epsom officials weigh turning vacant school into a new town hall
Epsom officials are considering purchasing and converting a former private school into a new town hall.
Selectmen held a special meeting earlier this month – and plan to convene another tomorrow – to tour the 3.5-acre property at 59 Sawyer Ave. and discuss the possible relocation. The school, Pathfinder Academy, opened in 2001 and closed last year. The Bank of New Hampshire purchased the property in a foreclosure auction in January.
“The facility would fit us like a glove for the next 50 years,” said selectmen Chairman Donald Harty.
The town government currently operates out of a strip mall near the traffic circle in town, which it rents for roughly $35,000 per year, Harty said. Officials have begun searching for a permanent home as the date nears when restrictions on their 10-year lease loosen – beginning in 2015 the town may withdraw from the rental agreement as long as it relocates to a larger town-owned space.
Renting property has made sense in the past as the size of the town government expanded, Harty said. But with rental costs rising each year and the office staff having reached a relatively stable size at seven employees, it makes more sense to own their own facility, he said.
The school property comprises four structures, including a modern-built main facility, a converted farmhouse, a detached classroom and an unfinished garage. Harty said the total space would measure about twice the size of the current offices. That may prove to be more space than the town needs, he said, in which case it could rent a portion to a small business or other local entity.
Harty said selectmen are moving quickly on the property because it is on the open market and is significantly undervalued – it is assessed at about $900,000, he said, but the bank is asking just $285,000, the price at which it purchased it at auction.
The selectmen will decide tomorrow whether to pursue making an offer on the property. Should they choose to proceed, any final sale would require three-fifths approval by town voters. Due to what Harty described as the prioritized nature of the listing, such a vote would likely come at a special town meeting held at least two months after proposing an offer.
“It’s not something we can wait until the next town meeting and risk missing a great opportunity,” Harty said.
About 25 residents attended the first special hearing earlier this month, Harty said. After touring the facility, some indicated that they supported the move while others argued that, rather than purchase new property, officials should turn their attention to space the town already owns.
“They want to purchase more property when they already have property to take care of,” said Penny Graham, a member of the Friends of Epsom’s Historic Meetinghouse.
Graham and others contend that the town should renovate the vacant Baptist meetinghouse it owns near the public library and relocate government operations there.
The meetinghouse, constructed in 1861, was moved to its present address several years ago after Cumberland Farms purchased its previous site and planned to demolish it. Graham’s organization has raised thousands in private funds since the relocation to care for the building. At last year’s town meeting, prior to the school site becoming available, voters supported a nonbinding warrant article to relocate the town offices into the meetinghouse space.
Harty said he would like to see the meetinghouse space “get up and occupiable,” but claimed that, due to its age and limited size, the building is not a long-term solution. Though the exterior was restored 10 years ago, the interior would require significant renovations, including electrical work and additions to make it accessible.
Graham disputed the size notion, saying she believes the building has adequate space for town operations, and said that if it doesn’t, officials could use additional space in the old town hall building next to the meetinghouse. Harty said that building has been vacant for years and is used mostly by the town band for practice sessions. As with the meetinghouse space, it would need renovations to be brought up to code, he said.
Still, Harty noted that perspective from Graham and others is exactly what selectmen hope to receive as they weigh the possible purchase.
“We want to make sure people in town don’t think we’re doing this in the shadow of darkness,” Harty said. “The more feedback we get, the more informed decision we can make.”
Tomorrow’s tour will begin at 5 p.m. A meeting at the current town offices to discuss the purchase will follow, at about 6:15 p.m.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)