Royalston seeks town input on Whitney Hall’s future

Whitney Hall as seen from the rear parking lot. The town is asked to find a consensus  to learn the preferred use of the 112-year-old building.

Whitney Hall as seen from the rear parking lot. The town is asked to find a consensus to learn the preferred use of the 112-year-old building. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-06-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 03-07-2024 11:26 AM


ROYALSTON – The firm hired by the town to undertake a marketing study for Whitney Hall told a public meeting last Thursday to hold off on any decisions for the future of the 119-year-old building.

Heather Calvin, senior consultant for Phoenix-based Keen Independent Research said nothing should be decided until a community consensus can be reached.

At the start of last week’s Selectboard meeting, Vice-Chair Deb D’Amico said town officials told Keen representatives that when the firm was hired last year, “the town really wishes to consider all the options we have to turn this iconic, much-loved building into an asset and not a liability. During the last 10 months, Keen Independent conducted a thorough analysis of our ask of them.”

Over that time, she said, the firm conducted extensive public outreach, including in-person meetings and the distribution of a survey, which garnered 62 responses.

D’Amico said Keen brought in an architectural firm from New York to analyze the condition of the building “in order to see what really is needed here to make this building” a feasible location for any potential future use.

“Something we really wanted to know,” said D’Amico. “What is a feasible, reasonable market for this building?”

Calvin presented estimates for the cost of renovating Whitney Hall. Keen’s final report states: “On an estimated square footage of 11,682, renovation cost forecasts range from approximately $4.7 million to approximately $16.4 million. These costs represent capital expenses only. Operating costs…depend on the purpose for which Whitney Hall would be used.”

While grants are available, Calvin pointed out that only one potential grant – from the Massachusetts Community One Stop for Growth Underutilized Properties Program – provides up to $1 million. Others ranged from $10,000 up to $750,000. She added that funding for rehabilitation of the building might also be found through public or private partnerships.

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Calvin added that there are a several other town facilities in need of work. These include Town Hall, which has a number of maintenance needs.

“You have a library that’s not currently (ADA) accessible. You have the Raymond School, which has some work done but isn’t yet complete, and funding has not been identified to turn that into (town) office space,” said Calvin. “And then the King Street Bridge and the condition of that, having been closed to vehicles…and to pedestrians and which carries the sewer line for the South Village. And that’s not the complete list of things competing for tax dollars and priorities for the community.”

Even demolition of Whitney Hall wouldn’t be cheap, Keen’s report stated, using the demolition of Petersham’s Nichewaug Inn & Academy as an example. While larger than Whitney Hall, the razing of the Nichewaug cost $700,000. To pay for the work, Petersham had to borrow $621,000.

Calvin presented survey results indicating that residents are divided over what should be done with Whitney Hall. Twelve percent said they were neutral when asked about the building being demolished, while 45 percent said they were opposed to the idea and 44 percent were open to it. Only 27 percent said the building “should be maintained by the town even if it requires moderate or substantial investment by Royalston and its residents,” while 50 percent of respondents disagreed.

While 83 percent disagreed with the statement that “Whitney Hall’s interior should be closed and kept unoccupied but the town should invest in maintaining and preserving the building’s historic exterior,” Calvin said that appears to be the most workable course, at least for the near future.

Calvin suggested that the town use its effort to develop a community master plan “to build consensus around (the town’s) priorities…and possibilities, and where Whitney Hall fits into that picture. Ultimately, the evidence that we see from the process of hearing from the community is that that is, right now, the only viable path that we see for Whitney Hall. Our hope would be that as you proceed with the master plan process it would open up possibilities and see a place where Whitney Hall could fit into a larger picture for the community.”

The Selectboard is still in the process of former a Master Plan Committee. Representatives from various town boards met in December with a representative of the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission to receive some guidance on developing a master plan.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.