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Bill Binnie lays out plan for Walker School building

Bill Binnie is a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, August 26, 2010.

(Alexander Cohn/Monitor Staff)

Bill Binnie is a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, August 26, 2010. (Alexander Cohn/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Bill Binnie’s plans for turning the former Walker School building into a media center include preserving aspects of the site’s history and planting shrubbery to conceal large satellite dishes, the Seacoast businessman told Concord officials yesterday.

The nearly century-old school building on Church Street will house television studios and several radio stations by next year, Binnie said. The plastics mogul and former Republican U.S. Senate candidate will purchase the property for $900,000; he signed a purchase and sale agreement with the Concord School Board in November.

“We want to build a building that is ADA compliant, we want to build a building that meets historic district commission codes and limitations, but we also want to make it for the 21st century to talk to our community statewide . . . and bring in presidential candidates, school kids into the auditorium, and have this a facility that’s known statewide as the place that if you’re running for president you announce here,” Binnie said.

Binnie said he will relocate six or seven of his radio stations to the old school building, and expand Derry-based WBIN-TV by adding studios and staff in Concord. He plans to keep other offices around the state and deliver community news to the New Hampshire market. Five years from now, he envisions a morning television news show that is also linked to his company’s radio stations and websites.

During a joint meeting of the Heritage Commission and Architectural Design Review Committee at Concord City Hall yesterday morning, Binnie discussed his plans to transform the historic building into a state-of-the-art media center. He said he has not yet hired an architect, explaining he first wanted to meet with city officials to understand their goals and limitations for the 1.5-acre property and 16,000-square-foot building. The former school closed last year as part of the school district’s elementary school consolidation, and Binnie outbid Concord Insurance Group to purchase the property.

The former Walker School building was built in 1914 and 1915. It is also the site where New Hampshire officials ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Concord Historic District, the city’s heritage commission must approve site plans. The project will also go before the city’s planning board. Binnie said yesterday he hopes to complete that process in time to begin construction this summer and to open the building early next year.

Binnie said he has received many phone calls, letters and emails from “people in the public who went to this school, and I better not screw it up.”

He said yesterday he hopes to relocate memorial plants and benches recognizing former Walker School teachers – and currently scattered in front of the building – to one memorial garden.

While the building’s footprint will not change, Binnie said it lacks a clear front entrance, with two identical doors facing Church Street on both sides of the building. He would like an architect to design a main entrance from one of those two doors.

Heritage commission Chairman Phil Donovan said Binnie would likely receive approval for a new doorway “if it’s tastefully done.”

The building’s television studios will require two or three satellite dishes, Binnie said. Radio antennas will likely be installed on the roof of the building, he said, but the satellite dishes would be installed on the ground.

Binnie said the satellite dishes, which are approximately five meters in diameter, would not necessarily be visible from the street because he can add shrubbery and landscaping around them.

While the city’s guidelines suggest that Binnie’s use for the building requires 90 parking spaces, he said he will need only about 50 on a daily basis.

“We think the intensity of this building except on . . . peak days will be dramatically less than it was as a school,” he said.

For larger events or meetings, Binnie and city officials agreed that the grassy area behind the building, along North State Street, could be used as extra parking without paving it as a parking lot. Rare special events such as presidential debates would require added security and perhaps shuttle buses from another location, he said.

Binnie’s plans include lighting the building’s facade; he said the property now looks like “a black hole” when driving by after dark.

He would also like to redesign the building’s interior, as the classrooms are larger than the size his company will require, and he wants to add an elevator for handicapped accessibility.

The school’s auditorium will be kept mostly in tact, Binnie said, and be used to televise large events with an audience present.

Heritage commission vice chairman Fred Richards told Binnie that the commission is generally “forward-thinking” and likes creative designs that respect a building’s history while adapting a space for a new purpose.

“I think the heritage commission in general would be open to reconfiguration to meet the new life of this building, a new use,” Richards said.

At yesterday’s meeting, Binnie touted his experience renovating historic buildings, such as the Wentworth by the Sea hotel in New Castle and the former city hall building in Portsmouth, which houses his office.

For his Concord project, Binnie is working with local attorney Richard Uchida and preservation consultant Elizabeth Durfee Hengen. Hengen is a member of the city’s Architectural Design Review Committee and retired from the Heritage Commission last month; she attended yesterday’s meeting but recused herself from her role as a committee member.

Signs will likely be added to three sides of the building, Binnie said. But the building’s name has not yet been determined, because it will house WBIN-TV and several radio stations. He said he’s considering names like “New Hampshire 1 News,” to group his media platforms.

“But we’ve actually had a branding discussion related to this, and it’s not an insignificant question,” he said.

When complete, Binnie said his media brand will include television, radio, social media and internet platforms.

“People say media company, they don’t really know what it is you’re trying to do, but it’s not just the 6 o’clock news,” he said. “It’s a whole series of textures.”

Clarification: Renovations to the former Walker School building require approval from the Concord Heritage Commission because the site is within the Concord Historic District. Its status on the National Register of Historic Places does not require design review.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or
lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

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