Time running short for Old Town Hall

Sounds like New Ipswich voters will soon have a tough call to make. The town’s Select Board just gave the OK for one last white elephant sale in the Old Town Hall this year, even though an engineer’s report recommended the building be closed until the deteriorating foundation can be shored up. Board member Woody Meiszner said letting people know that the sale, which is part of the annual Children’s Fair, would be the last public event that could be held in the building might make a difference if the town asks for money for repairs at a future Town Meeting. A request for $10,000 to develop an engineering plan was turned down five years ago, and voters also had no interest in creating a Heritage District Committee that might have been able to seek grant money.

Part of the problem when it comes to making significant repairs to historic buildings is justifying the expense of the work. That was a challenge in Hancock, where the Meetinghouse is currently undergoing major repair works after voters approved borrowing more than $800,000 for foundation work, a new slate roof and extensive interior repairs. (The actual cost to taxpayers will be much less; about $300,000 has been raised through private donations and grants, and the roof beams turned out to be in remarkably good shape for their age.)

The lower level of the Hancock Meetinghouse, where much of the interior work is going on, hasn’t been extensively used in recent years. The preschool that was in the space ceased operations due to lack of students and the lower floor’s only other use was for an annual summertime clothing sale. But town residents who saw the building’s potential did the homework to put together a plan for how the first floor could be renovated to serve as a performance and meeting space, with the hope of bringing the March Town Meeting back to the location where it had been held for many years. They held several community information sessions prior to Town Meeting to address questions about the project, and their efforts paid off when voters approved the bond in March.

Those who have a dream of how to use New Ipswich’s Old Town Hall should follow Hancock’s lead. Perhaps organizers of the annual Children’s Fair will want to use the white elephant sale as an opportunity to show residents both the flaws of the building and offer their ideas for future use. Bill Kivela, one of the Children’s Fair organizers, told the Select Board he’d like to see sewer connections and heat in the building. That’s liable to be expensive, so now’s the time to start selling voters on the benefits of a restoration project.

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