It’s no secret there’s a need for housing in central Maine.

The former Winslow Junior High School building could be a fix, as the town and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program continued discussions on a plan for the old Winslow junior high school building at a special council meeting Wednesday afternoon, but a vote was tabled.

“I’ve been on board with this project, I’ve been working with the committee since it was reconvened earlier this year,” Winslow Town Manager Erica LaCroix said before a question and answer session between the council and KVCAP. “I do absolutely think that what’s being offered here is something that the town needs. … Everybody needs to make sure that they’re covered, contractually, as far as not having to go down one road and have the rug yanked out from them.”

The Winslow Junior High School on March 12, 2019. While most students moved to the new junior high school, because of COVID-19 restrictions on distancing, sixth graders are attending class in the building this school year. Kennebec Valley Community Action Program proposes repurposing the building to create 41 apartments for seniors. Morning Sentinel file photo

Winslow councilors again chose unanimously to table a first vote on a plan in which KVCAP would renovate the nearly 100-year-old junior high building into affordable senior housing as councilors expressed concerns about the deal. On Wednesday, councilors presented a list of questions to KVCAP and received answers both in writing and orally at the meeting.

Dave Pelton, KVCAP’s director of real estate and development, said the organization became aware of the building approximately four years ago.

“We have come up with what we think is a very good and doable project that is in the best interest of the town,” Pelton said. “We would like to continue to be a good positive presence and a good positive partner.”

The proposed option agreement would transfer to KVCAP the old junior high school building, which is currently housing Winslow Public Schools sixth graders to fit distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. The project would create approximately 41 affordable housing units for adults 55 or older and renovate the gymnasium and auditorium to lease to a third party.

According to the potential agreement, KVCAP would pay $1 for the building under the proposed project, but would foot the bill on renovation costs. Half of the renovation cost for commercial space could potentially come through historical tax agreements. A TIF is included in the project, but there is a need for an additional $1.1 million to fund the entire project. If the agreement goes through, staged occupancy could begin May 31, 2023.

“The reason we are even entertaining this idea is that this meets the needs for the town of Winslow,” Pelton said.

The outside of the old junior high school building would remain unchanged amid a renovation. KVCAP completed a similar project in Fairfield at the former Gerald Hotel. Built in 1928, the old junior high school building closed at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. However, the sixth graders are utilizing the space until the end of this academic year financed through CARES Act funds. It is unclear whether the district needs the space next year. The new, $8.1 million Winslow Junior High School is connected to the high school. Seventh and eighth grade students learn at the new space as the district continues in its hybrid model for the remainder of the year.

District 1 Councilor Peter Drapeau expressed his desire for an environmental study to be conducted so the town knows what a demolition would cost compared to the housing project. Drapeau also questioned if KVCAP needed another party to sign on to follow through with the project. The councilors unanimously voted in a straw poll to allow LaCroix to explore the cost for the survey and demolition.

At the forefront, KVCAP’s responsibility is to get the building back up to code. Any third-party space to be rented out by the organization needs to meet the same requirements. Carl Lakari, an affordable housing developer working with KVCAP, said the organization would need approximately a year to continue through with the process.

“If we need to retool and look at this in a different way, we certainly are willing,” Lakari said. “It’s a win, win, win for everyone if we can make this happen.”

The council questioned why they’d have to pay to utilize the space if they’re donating the land for $1. Pelton said basic operation expenses would need to be covered by the town if it rents the third-party space but may be below market rate. Winslow taxpayers would not pay operating expenses of the apartments. Other entities, including Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, have expressed interest in the space.

Lakari and Pelton emphasized KVCAP needs “an anchor” organization to move forward with the project.

“If they can come up with another partner,” Drapeau said, “I’m all for the project if we are not in the management side of it.”

The town and KVCAP also discussed potential issues if the schools continue to need space for next year, timelines and more.

“I see a lot of benefit for the town in doing this, but it’s got to work out for the town’s finances,” LaCroix said. “Hopefully we can figure something out. If not, we’re back to the drawing board.”

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