standing North Stonington Education Center

North Stonington Education Center. Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

NORTH STONINGTON — With the sale or lease of the North Stonington Education Center to an outside organization becoming an unrealistic goal, members of the Board of Finance are considering alternatives including the potential demolition of the one-story wing and partnering with the Wheeler Library to package renovation of the facility as a recreational space alongside other library projects.

Selectmen Bob Carlson and Nita Kincaid authorized First Selectmen Mike Urgo last week to reach out to the library’s Board of Trustees and President Kate Parenteau to discuss possible partnership opportunities that could be mutually beneficial. The purpose of a partnership would be to open additional funding opportunities including grants and other money outside of taxes for renovations.

Urgo said that with few options for the space that would meet a deed-restricted use that the property be used for educational purposes only, the community must now race the clock to find a viable solution before the town is hit with a second winter of heating and maintenance costs.

“If we weren’t working with the deed restrictions, I have probably had eight potential tenants come forward that would be happy to have that space. They were not educational uses, though,” Urgo said at the Board of Selectmen meeting last week. “That ship has sailed.”

The proposed multi-level project is still in the early brainstorming stage and no site plan or definitive use for the space has been proposed.

Among the concepts shared last week, while all preliminary, involved potential demolition of the old middle school wing and repurposing of the two-story portion of the building as a recreational space and office for the Board of Education. The demolished portion of the property would then be theoretically redesigned as a town green or field space that would flow into the library property.

Urgo had also suggested a potential demolition of an unused portion of the two-story wing, but Carlson said he would prefer to keep the space available given the recent experience with the pandemic and early signs that the school-age population may be increasing in the community. Carlson said he liked the concept of developing a green space, however, and urged Urgo to begin discussions with library board members as soon as possible.

“I think we need to start with that meeting and build on it from there,” said Carlson, who served as chairman of the town's Education Center Subcommittee.

The latest effort to repurpose the building comes as the board grapples with what to do next after three failed attempts to lease or sell the property. The town acquired the mostly vacant facility last summer and voters approved the lease of the former middle school wing to Lighthouse Voc-Ed Center Inc., but negotiations fell through in December.

A second bid effort returned another interested party who was not identified, but the town and bidder were unable to come to an agreement.

The board went to bid a third time on July 21, but the four-week process did not return any offers.

During a special meeting this past spring, residents approved a measure by paper ballot to allocate $96,752 for expenses related to maintenance and repair at the education center. With winter approaching, members of the Board of Selectmen expressed concerns that the town will need to act with urgency in order to avoid absorbing another season of expensive heating and maintenance.

If all else fails, the town will likely need to return to the voters to seek a special appropriation for demolition costs, which are expected to well exceed $1 million.

“I think we have a great asset here and can work with it,” Urgo said. “We're going to be going into winter soon, and if there is any way to solve this problem before then, it would be great to move on it.”

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