On November 24, 2021

Woodstock committee reconsiders high cost of Town Hall renovation

By Katy Savage

A committee that’s spent four years studying the prices and concepts for a hefty renovation of the Woodstock Town Hall said last Monday, Nov. 15 that they couldn’t recommend any of their plans. They cost too much.

“As a team we’re not in a position to recommend any of the plans we created because they come in at a high cost,” said Jill Davies in a phone call. Davies leads the committee’s financing team with Jon Spector, chair of the Woodstock Economic Development Commission.

The Woodstock Town Hall is a historic building that houses Pentangle Theatre and Woodstock’s municipal offices. The group worked with Black River Design in Montpelier as well as a theater design firm on architectural concepts. The committee studied three plans in depth. The cost estimates ranged from $14.5 to $23 million.

“We don’t have confidence that any of these could succeed,” Spector told the village trustees and Select Board at the meeting on Nov. 15.

There are several private donors who have so far contributed $4 million. Spector said he expects private donors could pay up to $15 million, but he said most of those people are only interested in contributing money if the theater space undergoes a significant renovation.

“Some lead donors want to contribute to the most aspirational options,” Spector said. “That is affecting how we make these decisions.”

Spector reminded those at the meeting that “the town hall has serious structural issues.”

Spector said the heating and cooling system is at the verge of failure, the building doesn’t meet requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1928 theater “almost immediately began to separate from the building” after it was constructed because the soil it was built on is susceptible to flooding.

Engineers have examined the structure and Spector said everyone may need to evacuate in the event of a major storm.

“Safety could be compromised,” Spector said. “This is a serious issue.”

Spector explained the three options in depth. The first was what he called the “aspirational” plan (“Plan A”), which came with a $23 million price tag. Under this plan, all municipal activities would be moved to the second floor. The town clerk’s office would be expanded and have a larger vault to hold town records. The existing stage would be torn down and rebuilt on stable ground, with new theater seating, expanded dressing rooms and a larger lobby. There would also be a new loading dock, a patio facing the river and expanded ADA accessibility.

Spector guessed grants would be available to cover some of the cost. He expected private donors would pay $15 million, with taxpayers paying $7.5 million.

“We can’t stand here and say to you, ‘this is definitely possible,’” Spector said. He explained major donors are “not saying this is impossible, but they’re also not committing to $15 million” either.

The next plan would cost $16.5 million. A new HVAC system would be installed as well as a new, slightly smaller stage, and better ADA access. There would be no loading dock or riverfront patio.

“We get a lot of bang for our buck,” Spector said of what he called “Plan B.”

But, Spector said, private donors would rather put their money into Plan A. He estimated donors would contribute $10 million to Plan B. Taxpayers would need to support a bond of $5.5 million.

“We don’t know if that’s feasible or not,” Spector said.

The third plan would cost $14.5 million. It would focus on making essential improvements, with a new HVAC system and small updates to the existing theater and municipal offices.

“Plan C doesn’t really make a lot of sense because there’s not a lot of donor support for plan C,” Spector said. “Plan C is going to cost just as much as Plan B to the taxpayers because the donors will make up the difference.”

Spector estimated $5.5 million would need to be raised by taxpayers and $9 million by donors under Plan C.

Spector said the group also looked at building a new theater elsewhere, which would cost an estimated $46 million.

“If we want to continue to use the theater, we may have to do something in the interim that wouldn’t be the ideal project, but would be the fast project,” Spector said.

Spector said the town could make modest improvements to the offices, with better bathrooms and a new HVAC system. Donors would contribute $4.5 million and taxpayers $2.75 million.

Spector also suggested building a theater and municipal offices that meet the current needs but are “not perfect.” The cost of that plan is unclear. Spector also presented a series of plans he said “nobody likes.” In one of those plans, the stage building would be demolished and the theater space would move to a new location. Another option would be to move the municipal offices and theater and sell or demolish the current building. “Nobody hopes that will happen,” Spector said.

The group will continue meeting for the next three months and hopes to get more accurate and detailed cost estimates. There will also be public meetings.

Spector said a bond vote could happen by March 2023. Construction will take about a year after that, during which time all Town Hall activities would have to temporarily move to a new location.

Spector estimated a $1 million bond would raise the tax rate about 1%. This isn’t the only high-cost item Woodstock voters have to grapple with. There are plans to build a new high school, with a state-of-the-art 450-seat community theater, as well as a new wastewater plant in South Woodstock.

Davies said the Town Hall renovation committee is considering the other costs taxpayers will be faced with as committee members design Town Hall concepts.

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