Using historic buildings is enticing for N.H. towns, but it’s not always easy or cheap

  • Rick Pickwick (left) and Donna Hepp look at the Mill building in downtown Belmont. The mill is one of five buildings the town is looking at for better use of space. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • As Rick Pickwick comes out of the Belmont town offices, Kerry Bergeron (left) and Donna Hepp discuss the building tour last week in the center of town. The town offices are part of the discussion of how space is being used. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Donna Hepp (left) Rick Pickwick and Kerry Bergeron stand in front of the bandstand in downtown Belmont last week. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, November 06, 2017

Few things seem more suited to Yankee frugality than reusing old buildings you already own, but as communities try to balance historic preservation and keeping down costs, some are finding that it’s easier said than done.

“I think, sometimes, certain attitudes prevail that preservation is expensive and not worth it,” said Andrew Cushing of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, a group that helps communities save old buildings and places. “The idea that’s it’s thrifty to move and save a building, (that) people will want to get as much use out of it as possible – that’s a popular, romantic notion, but it doesn’t always hold up.”

Consider Belmont, which was a model for historic preservation in the way it stepped up and saved its empty downtown mill after a disastrous fire in 1992. In recent years, town residents have turned down several proposals to build, move or preserve some town-owned buildings in the historic downtown due to questions of cost and suitability.

Now the town is in the midst of a sweeping examination of five buildings within the village district – the library, town hall, police station, mill and a former bank/post office – in hopes that efficiency and history can go together.

“At the last deliberative session we decided, rather than focusing on one building at a time, maybe we needed to take a look at all town buildings,” said Donna Hepp, one of four members of the Belmont Facility Strategy Committee. “If you were going to do a major remodel on your house, you’d have an overall strategy – you wouldn’t just start doing this and that.”

“We’re heard a fair amount of Yankee pragmatism. If the town has 12 buildings and we’re not fully utilizing all of them, why would you build a new building?” she said. “But people can be reluctant to spend money unless they can see the big picture.”

That’s a good way to approach the issues, said Cushing, the gruop’s field services representative.

“They’re definitely not the only ones dealing with this,” he said. “But Belmont is definitely at one end of the spectrum, because they’ve got a lot of properties.”

The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance long ago realized that a key to maintaining historic buildings was to give them a modern use – preservation through utilization, so to speak.

“What our organization does is try to encourage rethinking and retooling of these buildings: Can you use them? If not, can you responsibly unload them: put an easement on them, sell them on the private market, get some private enterprise using those buildings and returning them to the tax rolls,” Cushing said.

The poster child in New Hampshire for this effort is the Manchester Millyard. That long stretch of brick buildings along the Merrimack River were largely abandoned and empty for years, remaining partly because it was too expensive to remove them, before businesses, led by inventor Dean Kamen, as well as nonprofits and colleges, turned them into office space now touted for invigorating the New Hampshire’s biggest city and for playing a key part in the state’s role in the biotech boom.

Nashua, the state’s second-largest city, has largely taken a different route in recent years, turning old mills into condominiums and apartments for downtown housing.

Belmont’s downtown mill has a typical history for such structures in New Hampshire. Built before the Civil War as a cotton and woolen mill using water power, it transitioned into manufacturing space around the turn of the 20th century, changing hands a few times as it struggled after World War II until finally closing in 1970. Some small businesses moved in and out until the 1992 fire gutted the building. Belmont took it over for back taxes in 1995, and local citizens banded together to save it.

A key point was a 20-year development grant, which allowed upgrades that have kept the building alive. Businesses ranging from doctors’ offices to a restaurant run by the culinary arts department of Lakes Regional Community College have come and gone.

Part of the incentive for the current study, Hepp said, is that the grant runs out in 2019, which allows for more flexibility – but also more uncertainty – in planning its future.

Belmont is also home to the Gale School, which dates to 1894 but appears doomed unless money can be raised to move it and fix it up. The school, owned by the Shaker Regional School District rather than the town, is one of the structures named in the 2017 Seven to Save list put out by the N.H. Preservation Alliance, highlighting historically important structures in imminent danger.

The Belmont Facility Strategy Committee isn’t considering the Gale School in its plans, which concentrate on the downtown Village District.

Hepp said the group is aiming to present the 2018 town meeting with a request for studies so that more specific proposals –with specific dollar figures – can be drawn up for consideration in future years.

“The comments that we have had from citizens made it clear that there’s a lot of interest in the historic character of the community. It is important to them,” Hepp said.

There’s another argument, Cushing said. If you abandon your old building and build new, you might be duplicating efforts and costs.

“A lot of towns have an old town hall and a new town complex, and they have to maintain both,” he said. “Wentworth is one of those. They don’t really know what to do with the old town hall.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)