The old Winslow Junior High School building. Morning Sentinel file photo

WINSLOW — Officials from the town of Winslow and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program are exploring an option agreement for the old Winslow Junior High School building, but the Town Council said it needs more information on the plan before holding a first vote.

The main issue is who would pay for about $2 million in renovations the building reportedly needs.

The Winslow Town Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to delay action on the plan at a special meeting. The council and KVCAP are scheduling a public meeting for next week to discuss parts of the deal, including that KVCAP has first right of refusal and that renovations to bring the gymnasium and auditorium up to code could cost about $1 million.

“The Winslow council and KVCAP want to clarify exactly what that document says,” Winslow Town Council Chairperson Ray Caron said Wednesday morning. “After almost a year of meetings, I think this is finally where the rubber meets the road. We’ll have to quickly make a decision on the junior high building.”

KVCAP provided a written response to the Morning Sentinel, saying the organization is “actively engaging” in discussions, but “there are numerous details to work out before any formal decisions are made.”

The town is also seeking bids on the cost to demolish the building.

The proposed option agreement would transfer the old junior high building to KVCAP for $1. KVCAP would then turn the building into affordable housing, except for the gymnasium and auditorium. The town could enter into an agreement to lease the gym and auditorium for the price of the debt incurred by KVCAP to renovate the space, plus operating expenses.

During the council meeting Tuesday night, officials said if KVCAP were to buy the building, it would have to pay the $1 million to repair the gymnasium and auditorium. The lease for a third-party space would be high. The town likely could not afford it.

Total renovations for the building are estimated at about $2 million, according to information presented at the council meeting.

If the project were to move forward, KVCAP would reportedly create 35 affordable housing units for adults 55 or older. The building’s exterior would not change. All renovations would be to the interior. KVCAP has completed a similar project — the Gerald Senior Residences — at the former Gerald Hotel in Fairfield.

“We are excited about the potential possibilities for the Winslow Junior High School building,” Dave Pelton, KVCAP’s director of real estate development, wrote in a prepared statement. “We know there is a huge need for affordable housing in our area, and with an aging population, focusing on seniors makes the best sense for this development of this building.”

Built in 1928, the old junior high school building closed at the end of last year, but Winslow Public Schools is currently using part of the building for sixth grade during the coronavirus pandemic. In the future, Winslow’s sixth-graders will be at a renovated space at Winslow Elementary School. It is not yet clear whether the school district needs the space next fall at the old junior high school. The district is using CARES Act funds to finance use of the old building.

“We should give them the opportunity to utilize that building,” Caron said at the meeting, “and have a facility that guarantees closeness, in-person learning, buses and all of those necessities.”

The new Winslow Junior High School is connected to Winslow High School, but the $8.1 million space has a separate entrance. Seventh- and eighth-grade students are learning at the new space as the district continues with its hybrid model for the remainder of the academic year.

During the special Town Council meeting Tuesday night, Winslow Town Manager Erica LaCroix and councilors had discussed the junior high project. The council spoke about the deal during an executive session Monday, but the next meeting with KVCAP will have to be public.

Prior to the next meeting, the Town Council plans to submit through Lacroix a list of questions and concerns to KVCAP officials.

During the meeting, Councilor Peter Drapeau of District 1 said the biggest question is would KVCAP be willing to move forward with the project “without the town coming up with $2 million in any way, shape or manner.”

Drapeau said he was not in favor of the town’s spending additionally on the building, and would only spend money to “make it go away.” He said he was interested in the option of leasing the gymnasium and auditorium space.

At the meeting, Caron, who represents District 4, said $1 million toward the renovations could come in historical tax credits or other funding. He questioned details of a possible leasing arrangement.

KVCAP estimated the monthly cost of leasing would be between $5 and $9 per square foot, adding the size of the space would need to be confirmed. Caron suggested the town could undertake a fundraiser.

“Reading between the lines, why are we losing sight of the thought that we’re donating the building and the property for a dollar, and them making all the demands?” Drapeau said. “I don’t see the urgency or the dire need for the town to enter into an agreement on this old building that the town condemned three years ago.”

LaCroix said a meeting with KVCAP representatives is needed to clarify issues while the plan is on the table.

“Basically, we’re giving them the sole right to make the decision of whether that building moves forward or not,” LaCroix said at the meeting. “That takes away our ability to decide if it’s better to be demolished.

“By the same token, they can decide for any reason that they walk away from the agreement, and we’re left holding the bag.”

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