ORLEANS – A request for funding to restore the Orleans Community Center on Main Street will not go before town meeting voters this spring as hoped. But advocates behind the project aren't about to throw in the towel on plans for the historic building.
"We are committed to making this happen," Alan McClennen, who chairs the town's community center renovation task force, told the select board March 16.
McClennen and others on the task force have been behind the earliest efforts to restore the center, which date back to 2012. Built in 1926, the center formerly served as the town's first fire station and is the second oldest town-owned building in Orleans.
The task force brought an application before the community preservation committee seeking a $2 million bond to carry out the restoration work, plans for which include improvements to both the interior and exterior of the building. A central feature of the restoration involves the installation of a paned garage door in the style of the one that was installed for the fire station in 1940. Inside, there would be bathrooms in the back, a "flex" room, kitchen and office and meeting space. The front of the center would be redone to feature a large function room while retaining space for the Orleans Chamber of Commerce in the adjoining visitors center.
But concerns from the town's historic commission over whether or not the proposed work meets the standards for historic restoration projects set by the Secretary of the Interior hung up the proposal, and the CPC voted 5-4 March 10 not to support the funding request. CPC members also expressed concern with bonding out the $2 million, a move some said could compromise the committee's ability to fund future historic preservation projects in the years ahead.
"I want to express my sorrow in not being able to pull this off, but I recommend that you not go to town meeting for a debt exclusion this year," McClennen told the select board last week.
An inquiry was made to see if funding could be secured for the work through the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund, but McClennen said the project is ineligible.
"There are 10 selection criteria," he said. "We'd be top of the list on all 10 of them, but we can't apply. We can't apply because our historical commission didn't put [the center] on the Massachusetts state register."
The select board had a strong advocate for the community center project in Kevin Galligan, the board's representative to the CPC. Galligan told his board March 16 that the CPC will likely consider a change in policy regarding its review of historic preservation projects moving forward.
"I think we're going to see at our next CPC meeting a proposal that we don't rely on our historic commission to do that review," he said. "The CPC can hire somebody who is independent, will review the plans and give a ruling."
Beyond the restoration standards, CPC members also had issues with bonding out the $2 million for the community center project. The task force sought to bond the project over 20 years, but members feared that wouldn't leave the committee much room to maneuver financially moving forward.
For Mefford Runyon, who chairs the select board, that question should have been brought before town meeting.
"If that was actually an issue, I would have much preferred letting the town meeting decide whether that is an acceptable or supported approach for the CPC to take rather than having the CPC on its own make that decision," he said.
While some disagreed with the CPC's vote, select board member Michael Herman spoke in support of the committee. He said the committee's vote was taken in what members saw as the town's best interest.
"Their discussions I thought were very thoughtful and passionate," he said. "It's great to have differing opinions on all sides, but everyone cares deeply about Orleans, and I thought that was really important."
At present, McClennen said, the task force's work is done according to its charge from the select board. The board plans to revisit and amend that charge at a future meeting to allow the task force to continue its work.
In the short term, Galligan asked that a $2 million line item be put in the town's capital improvement plan for Fiscal Year 2024 as a placeholder while other funding sources for the community center project are explored.
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