NORTH STONINGTON – Residents will soon have the final word on whether to move forward with the lease of a portion of the North Stonington Education Center – and if all goes well, demolition of the one-story wing could happen well under the anticipated costs as well .
Members of the Board of Selectmen on Friday issued a call for a town meeting that will allow officials to seek approval to lease the first-floor of the two-story wing to an early education initiative, a deal that would bring the town approximately $ 30,000 in revenue annually. A second question to be presented to voters at the meeting seeks use of $ 120,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding to offset maintenance costs at the 298 Norwich-Westerly Road facility.
Officials also said this week that they are nearing an agreement to accept a bid from Besttech Incorporated of Connecticut that, if all conditions are met as expected, could potentially save the town almost half a million dollars in demolition costs, allowing the town to use only ARPA funding to take down the unused one-story portion of the building.
“One thing that the Board of Selectmen does not want to do is to take the lowest bid, then find out that we missed something,” First Selectman Robert Carlson said. “I called the company, which has gotten good reviews, and they are confident that they can do the job for the price they said.”
If the lease and demolition are each approved in the coming weeks, it could bring an end to a lengthy transition process for the North Stonington Education Center that began over half a decade ago. The media center and a portion of the building near the main entrance is still used, but the property has remained largely vacant since the school district returned it to the town following the completion of the town’s school modernization project over three years ago.
The public had approved a referendum in 2019 that allowed the town to enter into negotiations with Lighthouse Vocational-Educational Center, Inc., but the deal fell through following nearly six months of negotiations.
The town has since faced an array of additional challenges including the pandemic, an unstable commercial real estate market, and deed restriction that requires the property to be used specifically for education purposes.
Following several failed negotiations with prospective tenants, the community voiced a desire at forums in January to see the one-story wing that formerly served as the middle school demolished, which is in line with plans first approved in 2016. The demolition that was to be part of the project never occurred, however, after the town needed to rebudget to address unanticipated environmental cleanup needs related to PCBs found in North Stonington Elementary School.
Carlson said that discussions with the prospective tenant, who has not been identified pending completion of the deal, first led to a lot of interest in the second floor, which was better suited to the needs of the tenant. Due to state laws and local regulations, however, students below first grade are restricted from using upper floors and it forced both sides to regroup in negotiations.
“If you look at the proposed lease agreement, it is a per square foot price that covers (common area maintenance) charges, things like plowing and shoveling or mowing,” Carlson said. “In all, the price would be $ 5.25 per square foot, which comes to around $ 30,000 (annually).”
Under the proposed lease, the new tenant would then create their own, separate entrance and would retrofit first-floor classrooms to be suited for use as an early education classroom. The woodshop will remain the property of the town, Carlson explained, and the tenant would be responsible for retrofitting bathrooms because there aren’t any on the first floor, which the tenant has already agreed to.
The goal would be to sign the lease as soon as possible so that work could begin work over the summer.
That town meeting is scheduled to take place on June 27 at 6 pm at 298 Norwich-Westerly Road. The meeting will be broadcast virtually to allow for greater resident participation, but those hoping to vote on the lease will need to do so in person that night.
The better news for residents, however, may actually be what is absent from that meeting – there are less anticipated costs for demolition than initially budgeted, despite concerns that bids were expected to potentially begin as high as $ 1.4 million.
“If we can go this route, it is good for the town and it keeps costs under what was already approved through ARPA, so we don’t need to go back before the Board of Finance or ask the townspeople for any money,” Carlson said at a recent meeting.
When the school modernization project took place, estimated costs for demolition came in around $ 1.1 million. That money was quickly reallocated, however, to meet other remediation needs.
North Stonington hosted a walkthrough of the one-story wing that will be demolished, which includes everything left of the former main entrance to Wheeler, and received four bids earlier this month from companies interested in the project. While one bid was over $ 1.5 million and two others came in over $ 1.2 million, including a quote from demolition specialists Stamford Wrecking Co.
Meanwhile the top bidder, Bestech, submitted a bid that came in just under $ 690,000. With that bid, the town will need to hire a Clerk of Works to act as project manager, overseeing that aspects of the timeline are met before payments are issued to the company.
Selectman Brett Mastroianni said his only concern is the company’s admission that they are smaller and would be using 100 percent of their company on the project. If there is an employment issue in such cases, he said that means there is no one else for Bestech to bring in.
“No one else higher than 50 or 60 percent,” Mastroianni said. “Maybe they are just doing the one job, but if so, when would they be able to start? Within the bid, it is clear that it must be completed within the calendar year. ”
In correspondence, Town Attorney Gary Annino told members of the council that it is common practice to include a standard pay schedule and penalties for if deadlines are not met. These components will be included in any agreement, officials said, and will serve to help protect the community and its interests.
“If we are able to get a contract and do the bulk over summer before students are back in school, I think that would be beneficial to the town,” Mastroianni said.