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Group seeking to give Colrain’s Brick Meeting House the business

  • A group of residents wants renovate the historic Brick Meeting House in Colrain and do what Michael McCusker has done for the Odd Fellows/McCusker’s Market building in Shelburne Falls: Convert the second floor into office space rentals that include high-speed Internet and put a cafe or eatery on the first floor to serve the community. Recorder photo<br/>

    A group of residents wants renovate the historic Brick Meeting House in Colrain and do what Michael McCusker has done for the Odd Fellows/McCusker’s Market building in Shelburne Falls: Convert the second floor into office space rentals that include high-speed Internet and put a cafe or eatery on the first floor to serve the community. Recorder photo
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • A group of residents wants renovate the historic Brick Meeting House in Colrain and do what Michael McCusker has done for the Odd Fellows/McCusker’s Market building in Shelburne Falls: Convert the second floor into office space rentals that include high-speed Internet and put a cafe or eatery on the first floor to serve the community. Recorder photo<br/>
  • Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Inside the Palladian Room of the Bridge of Flowers Business Center on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

COLRAIN — Hoping to spur the revitalization of the town’s village center, a group of residents wants to renovate the historic Brick Meeting House and do what Michael McCusker has done for the Odd Fellows/McCusker’s Market building in Shelburne Falls: Convert the second floor into office space rentals that include high-speed Internet and put a cafe or eatery on the first floor to serve the community.

When presented with the idea, selectmen said they like the concept, but warned that the biggest continuing obstacle may be the lack of sewer service or an adequate septic system on the property.

“It’s always the lack of septic systems that stops things,” said Selectman Mark Thibodeau. “I don’t want to discourage you, but it’s going to be quite an endeavor that you’re attempting.”

“We would love to lend support to anyone trying to start a business in this town,” said selectmen’s Chairwoman Eileen Sauvageau. But she added that creating a business center in the village “might be putting the cart before the horse” if it is done before adequate wastewater infrastructure is in place.

She remarked that the asking price for an empty store on Jacksonville Road has dropped to $22,000. “I understand the reason is because there’s no septic system,” she said.

Anne Yeomans and Liz Sonnenberg told the selectmen they have been discussing redevelopment with trustees of the Brick Meeting House with the Colrain Land and Historic Building Preservation Trust since February. “We would love to find a way to preserve that building, in a way that meets community needs.”

“Could we create a business community center — like Michael McCusker has done, with a food venue on one floor, serving as a gathering place for the community — and bringing fiber-optic cable into the Brick Meeting House?

“We know people who are already renting (office) space in Shelburne Falls for the Internet,” she continued. “The essence of our thinking is, we’d want that business center to bring in enough money to pay for the costs of maintaining the building and hiring someone to manage it.”

Yeomans said they have talked to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and have also read a feasibility study that was produced by Margo Jones Architects Inc. in 2009, to determine whether the building would make a suitable senior center. Ultimately, the town did not get a Community Development Block Grant for the senior center project, and determined that the first-floor space was not large enough for a fully accessible senior center.

In 1992, a group of residents formed the nonprofit Colrain Land and Historic Building Preservation Trust, which bought the Brick Meeting House, with the goal of saving the 1834-vintage church building and returning it to public use. But after 20 years, and failure to get the $940,000 needed to bring the building up to code, trustees put the building up for sale. For now, however, they have taken it off the market to allow the new group time to explore options for financing and revitalizing the building, according to Phillips Sherburne, president of the trust.

“The reason for buying it was to save the building,” he explained. He said the trust just wants to see the building put to good use and is happy to have some new ideas for the property.

Yeomans said the group has also discussed the idea with Planning Board Chairwoman Joan Rockwell. They have also looked at a Williamstown building of about the same age as the Brick Meeting House, which has been converted into an apartment complex. They have also looked at a renovated Broad Brook House in Guilford, Vt., which has been converted into a general store by a nonprofit group.

On the third floor of McCusker’s Market building in Shelburne Falls, a former unused ballroom has been converted into office spaces, desks and cubicles that are leased by about 30 individuals or groups.

Sonnenberg told selectmen, “We wanted you to know there is this interest in the Brick Meeting House. We know the Brick Meeting House work would be within context of the larger vision the town has for the town center.”

She asked if selectmen have considered setting up an economic committee, such as Charlemont’s Economic Roundtable, to look into revitalizing the town center.

But board members said their top priority for now is to resolve the lack of sewers or septic system options in the village center. In a recently released initial engineering and cost study, Weston & Sampson engineers have placed the cost of a sewer system to link the town center to the treatment plant at Barnhardt Manufacturing, at about $2.5 million. One problem for now is that, although better facilities could spur more growth, the new sewer would only serve about 55 properties.

“Most people don’t live in the town center,” said Savaugeau. “Their investment would be in creating community.”

“What can we do to create community?” Yeomans asked.

Selectmen said they could encourage other residents to support building a sewer system in the village. Also, the board is hoping people will support a state environmental bond bill that would help to fund sewer projects in rural areas.

Town Coordinator Kevin Fox said he’d be willing to help the group with grant applications, providing selectmen give their support.

Selectman Jack Cavolick suggested “mothballing” the Brick Meeting House, to prevent further building deterioration until there is sewer infrastructure. “It would be a shame to lose that building, because we are under a time pressure,” he said. “To pull a building permit, you would have to have a viable septic system,” he added.

Board of Health member Nina Martin-Anzuoni said there are old, unused septic systems near the Brick Meeting House, including one for the former Colrain Inn, which burned down decades ago. She suggested they could be tested, to see if one of them would be suitable for a revitalized meeting house.

Last year, the Civil War Veterans Memorial Hall building was demolished after being empty for many years and being for sale without any buyers. The lack of a viable septic system was one reason why the historic building remained unsold and unused for so many years.

Colrain has been awarded a $1.5 million Transportation Improvement Program grant to make improvements to the Jacksonville-Greenfield-Main roads intersection, which is where the Brick Meeting House is located. That work is expected to take place in 2018 or 2019. Selectmen are hoping, if townspeople agree to build a sewer system, that the work could be done the same time as the road project.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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