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Building challenges

Good long-term economic development isn’t always easy or fast, but with a lot of hard work and the right partners, hopefully the wait is worth it.

When the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC) took ownership of the First National Bank building, it had been vacant and neglected for 25 years. Windows were broken, the roof leaked and jersey barriers prevented people from walking on the sidewalk because the facade was falling down. Everyone wanted something to happen with the building but nobody wanted to take it on. Then the FCCDC stepped up, took on the risk and got control of the property. We knew from the beginning that it was the right thing to do and we also knew that it would take many partners working together to make something good happen.

Before taking ownership, the FCCDC had an agreement with the Town of Greenfield to use Community Development Block Grant funds, that otherwise would have been returned to the state because the original project they were intended for had fallen through. The FCCDC and the town believed that redeveloping this property into a community asset was the right thing to do. Using the CDBG funds, other grants that we secured (some with Congressman John Olver’s help), our own operating funds and taking on debt, we stabilized the structure, cleaned it up, replaced the roof, sealed the exterior, improved the facade and got it ready for the next stage of renovation. After these improvements were made to the building, other vacant properties on Bank Row were purchased and redeveloped by new owners, bringing economic activity to a section of downtown that had been vacant and dilapidated. I think we can all agree that there has been improvement.

The first redevelopment plan for the building was to put several shops there and leave the center open as a gathering space. The FCCDC applied for tax credits, and with state Sen. Stan Rosenberg’s assistance, the state was prepared to contribute $800,000 to the project. Yet the extensive renovation costs and the projected rental income for this project made this financially unfeasible.

The next plan involved working with Greenfield Community College and the owners of the Garden Theater to create a 1,000-seat Performing Arts Center. The FCCDC and other partners spent a great deal of time, energy and money working on this promising project. We applied for and received more than $2 million in tax credits for the rehabilitation of this building. But after more than two years of effort, the partners pulled out. The FCCDC was left with more debt and no viable plan.

The redevelopment of the bank is not a financially profitable venture and that’s why no private entity has taken it on. The latest renovation cost estimates are in the neighborhood of $4 million. The high cost is due to many issues, including reinforcing the structure to bring it up to current seismic code and installing all new utilities; all of which is more complicated (and expensive) due to its historic status, its downtown location and its close proximity to neighboring buildings.

Redeveloping this property is still the right thing to do and the FCCDC intends to keep working on it. The FCCDC and Greenfield are working together, once again, to redevelop the building into a multi-use community cultural center and events space, which will enhance the community and not compete with the private businesses. This plan is for concert and performance space, public and private functions and it could also be opened up for farmers markets or a wide variety of other events throughout the year. The lower level could be a safe and fun space for our youth. This idea has lots of support, but securing funding is still a challenge.

As a community space that will not charge high entrance fees, we need to fund this without taking on more debt. With the city and the FCCDC joining forces, we expect to tap into different funding sources. This, along with the tax credits and state funds we have already secured, will hopefully allow us to develop this building into an asset to the community. Today, at 5:30 p.m., there will be a public meeting to discuss this plan and get community support to form a cultural district downtown and get ready to apply for other funding sources.

John Waite is the executive director of the Franklin County Community Development Corp. and believes that if we each try to do the right thing the world will be better. He can be reached at johnw@fccdc.org.

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