District seeks funds for Noank School repairs

Groton - The Town Council is working to craft an agreement that may help the Noank Fire District seek funding for repairs and eventually reuse the former Noank School.

The Noank School reuse committee made a presentation to the council earlier this month, proposing to rehabilitate the southern portion of the building, which contains an auditorium, kitchen, bathrooms and offices, for public use.

Committee member Bryan Burdick said initial estimates to repair the exterior of the former school and open up one-third of the building range from $300,000 to $440,000. The outside grounds would be open for passive recreation.

"It has always been our intent that it would be public property for public use," Burdick said.

Reuse committee member Paul Bates said the district would have to hire someone to manage the use of the building, comparing it to how the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center operates.

Refurbishing the entire building all at once is considered too daunting and expensive, according to committee members.

The council agreed to write a memorandum that likely outlines some "what if" scenarios, but was concerned about funding sources and the possible impact on Noank taxpayers.

Burdick said the district has started talks about possible state bonding with state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton. She supports the project and has approached legislative leaders with the request but needs a formal memorandum of understanding or lease agreement from the town to move forward.

"It's a worthy project," Wright said.

Any grant funding would be supplemented by private donations or a hike in fire district taxes. The plan will die without public support, Burdick said.

Questions arose among councilors about whether the entire fire district is behind the project. The district voted 46-9 in April to support pursuing the reuse of the building. At that time, residents had not seen a plan.

"I'm not comfortable entering into a lease until we have a better understanding as to the funding… and your fire district, if they're really behind it," said Mayor Heather Bond Somers. "I would feel more comfortable if you had another conversation with your fire district and presented the plan."

She added there are 1,800 residents in the fire district and only 46 voted to move the project forward.

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said a memorandum of understanding would allow the district the time to either secure grant funding and/or ask for authorization to borrow money. He said the memorandum should include language about the town's responsibility in the event the fire district can not raise the needed money.

"This is a pretty big project for anybody," he said

Noank Fire District Chairman Frank Socha, who helped work on the plan, said he would look forward to the memorandum.

"We want to get to a place where we get to use the school," Socha said.

g.smith@theday.com

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