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Richmond voters weigh $9.8M renovation of key town building

A brick building's entrance is shrouded by a white roof over white columns. The words 1907 RICHMOND TOWN CENTER are visible on the roof.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
Richmond voters will decide if the town can borrow up to $9.8 million to fund renovations for the 100-year-old Town Center.

Richmond Town Center is not in great shape.

The building lacks proper ventilation. There’s no sprinkler system. The windows are drafty. The fire escape is rickety and doesn’t reach the third floor. The basement floods.

“We’ve had engineers and architects look at it; The foundation is good. The roof is good. And the walls are good. Just about everything else is not,” said Jeff Forward, a town selectboard member and head of a committee tasked with developing a plan to renovate the town center and nearby public library.

An older man with a mustache and knitted sweater points to a board showing a map of what the Town Center will look like once renovations are complete.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
Selectboard member Jeff Forward heads the town's Town Center and Library Buildings committee.

And yet the building is an anchor: it holds the town’s only post office, an art space, a senior activity center, a police station, a local news channel, offices for a summer camp and food service program and all of the town’s administrative offices and vital records as well as storage for the historical society.

On Town Meeting Day, voters in Richmond will be asked to authorize the town to borrow up to $9.8 million to fund a large-scale renovation of the building, amounting to up to $96 for every $100,000 in value on a homeowner’s tax bill, depending on the terms of the loan and what grants the town gets.

The Town Center and Library Buildings Committee, which Forward chairs, has spent five years studying the building and all of its flaws, working with an architectural firm, regulators, engineers and more to prepare the plan for Town Center.

A white door has a buildup of black dust on the top left panel.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
Soot from the building's antiquated air vents (which don't filter outside) used to collect on surfaces; now it's gathered by air purifiers.

“The one thing that the committee does not know is whether the community is willing to invest this much in this building,” Forward said. “We’ll find that out.”

‘Our only source of ventilation… is the leaky windows’

At the town office, on the second floor, Forward lifted a sign off the front door, revealing a smattering of dark dust. It’s soot, from a nearby air vent. Linda Parent, the town clerk, had been wiping it up once a week.

“We were getting this terrible smoke through the air vents,” Parent said. “We got some air filters and cleaned the air vent, which has helped some, but judging by the filters it’s still coming out.”

Parent, a lifelong Richmond resident, started first grade in the schoolhouse that would later become Richmond Town Center, worked there in the summers in high school, and now works there again as the town clerk.

An older white woman with silver hair sits at a cluttered desk.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
Linda Parent, Richmond's town clerk, said the building has multiple health and safety issues.

The building has a ton of health and safety issues, she said.

Once, the rope holding a window broke, dropping it. It didn’t shatter, Parent said, but could be heard throughout the building. Another time, smoke filled her office, apparently from a wood stove across the street. The drafty windows had sucked the smoke in. Still, there is a benefit of having such poorly-insulated windows.

“Our only source of ventilation in this building is the leaky windows,” Forward said.

The Town Center’s windows are made of single-pane glass with plastic insulation — “It doesn’t really help,” Parent said — with storm windows on the outside. The storm windows are so heavy, Forward said, it’s difficult to safely remove them; he doesn’t remember the last time many of them were cleaned.

The renovated building would have double-pane windows, eliminating the need for storm windows, providing better insulation, and making them easy to clean.

In the basement, Forward pointed to a line of plaster on the wall. This, he said, was where the water reached in last year’s July floods.

A line of fresh plaster shows the water reached over a foot in height in the richmond town center basement.
Corey Dockser
Vermont Public
Repairs show the high water mark in the town center's basement.

A corner of the building is located on a hundred-year floodplain, meaning there’s a 1% chance for a flood to reach that point every year. In the past year, the basement has flooded three times — twice in last year’s July flood, and once in December, Forward said.

When water reaches the building, Person said, it enters the basement and fills a hollow space beneath the post office that currently houses heating pipes. If voters approve the renovation money, the central heating system will be replaced with an electric heat pump, and that hollow space will be filled in. All mechanical systems would need to be moved out and pressure drains would need to be installed.

“If the ground becomes inundated with water it risks collapsing the foundation,” Forward said. “So we have to put in a relief valve to allow water to come into the building if the floodwaters get too high.”

Once the renovations are complete, only non-critical storage will be allowed in the basement.

Filling in the crawl space, installing new wiring and a modern HVAC system, fire alarms, sprinklers; all of these things would require tearing up walls, floors, and ceilings, Forward said, making it most economical to do everything in one go.

“When we teased it all out, the committee felt that it would be not cost-effective to do one thing without doing another. And so what would appear to be the most efficient and cost-effective thing to do is to do the entire project at one time, rather than just stretch it out over time.” Forward said. “It will be painful to go through the construction process. But it'll be a one shot deal.”

‘We don’t have a plan B’

The $9.8 million budget is a ceiling, not a floor. Any grants the town receives will lower the cost to taxpayers, Forward said. Still, it’s an expensive project, even with cost-saving measures like keeping the walls, roof, and foundation.

Forward sees the long-overdue renovation as part of a legacy in Richmond of expensive projects that stand today, like the Old Round Church or the Unitarian church that is now the town’s public library, or indeed, the town center itself.

What is now Richmond Town Center was originally a schoolhouse, built in 1907 and designed by famed early 20th-century Vermont architect Frank Austin. A year later, a massive fire razed the block — though the schoolhouse, made of brick rather than wood, survived. In 1914, just six years after that traumatic event, the town expanded the building.

“And what that tells me is that there were people who lived in town at that time who felt that they had the time, the energy, and the resources to invest in their community, for the long term, and we are still living with that legacy,” Forward said. “The plan we put together is a legacy project for future generations.”

Asked what the committee plans to do if the article fails, Forward let out a sigh. Construction costs will only continue to rise, Forward said, and a piecemeal plan would result in a much longer period of disruption.

“We put all of our energy into this proposal because we felt it was the most cost effective thing to do,” Forward said. “If we weren’t to do this, I don’t know. I really don’t know. We don’t have a plan B.”

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Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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