The White River Valley Herald

Finding New Use for School Building

Committee Works To Re-purpose Rochester H.S.

Re-purposed tires sit unused in Rochester School outdoor classroom during a recent cold and windy day. (Herald / Jerry LeBlond)

Re-purposed tires sit unused in Rochester School outdoor classroom during a recent cold and windy day. (Herald / Jerry LeBlond)

A committee of Rochester residents has been working for the past year with the goal of “re-purposing” the former Rochester High School building, which closed in June 2018, except for use by the elementary school students for music and art classes.

Last fall, the board of the Rochester Stockbridge Unified District closed the building to all classes, due to the pandemic. Since then, the board has decided that the building is no longer needed for educational purposes and is preparing for its sale.

The agreement that merged the towns of Rochester and Stockbridge into a unified district stipulates the sale price of the building to the Town of Rochester at $1.00, giving Rochester the right of first refusal before the building can be offered to any other potential buyer at fair market price.

Vic Ribaudo and Kathryn Schenkman are co-chairs of the Repurposing Committee, which also includes Jeff Gephart, Amy Wildt, Dick Robson, Cynthia McPhetres, Robert Meagher, and Lolly Lindsay. Rochester Selectboard member Pat Harvey is the selectboard liaison to the committee.

“The selectboard has charged the repurposing committee with exploring different options and uses for the high school building,” Harvey said. “This will enable the selectboard to present to the voters of Rochester well-researched options and uses if that opportunity arises.”

“I am excited by the ideas and motivation this group has for exploring possible uses of this town asset,” added Wildt, who is the school board liaison to the committee. “It’s encouraging and a great opportunity for growth.”

“The formation of the committee goes back to Envision Rochester,” Ribaudo explained. “In 2019, the Envision Rochester team held several community-wide meetings about ways to consider and possibly act on a number of projects that could help build community resilience in the face of an aging, shrinking population and build upon the strength of the community.

“We sought assistance from the Vermont Council on Rural Development to conduct a community visit to build community consensus,” he added.

“They were not available right then to help us, so we conducted our own community workshop in February 2020 where we brought together input from previous community meetings and had project ideas suggested and then we discussed and voted on which ones were most important and the idea of repurposing the high-school building was one of the ones that had very strong interest.”

In early March of last year, Robert Meagher and Kathryn Schenkman went to the school board and the selectboard and got their blessing to go forward with forming a repurposing committee and coming up with recommendations.

“The process paused for a while because of COVID,” Ribaudo said, “but we started it up again last May. We held two focus groups with people for the arts community (socially distanced outdoors) and then we sent an email to all of those participants looking for other ideas and then got some more ideas. We then began to explore other uses for the building and came to the conclusion that it could serve as a multi-use facility and meet several needs in the area.”

The HUB

The committee is proposing that the building be repurposed as a multi-use facility, they call The HUB. The HUB would house an arts and learning center, maker space, adult daycare center, childcare center, and small business incubator program.

For 40 years, the building has been the performance home of the White River Valley Players (WRVP), and for 15 years, the venue of the Green Mountain Suzuki Institute (GMSI), sponsored by the Rochester Chamber Music Society (RCMS)—widely known for its summer concert series, now in its 25th year.

Arts and learning programming could include classes, demonstrations, lectures, performances, events, and access to work and practice spaces. Areas of activity may include, but are not limited to: visual arts and crafts, vocal and instrumental music, theater, guest artist residency programs, and culinary arts. An outdoor recreation program may include: ski touring, snowshoeing, ice skating and hockey, snow sculpture, trail biking, fly fishing, and skateboarding.

A maker space would be a facility with tools, tool-instruction and skill lessons where any community member can use the facility on a membership basis, work on projects, learn new skills, and commune with fellow makers. Facilities might include woodworking and metalworking equipment, electronics lab, 3D printers, stained-glass equipment, computer-guided routers and engravers, and laser cutters. The present school shop contains many of those facilities, and more could be added.

Business incubators bolster local economic development by providing low-cost office and conference space rentals to start-up businesses and first-time entrepreneurs. At a basic level this allows small businesses to conduct and grow their company, keeping a larger portion of their initial intakes of profits.

Additional benefits include networking opportunities and shared clerical services. A maker space and business incubator located within the same facility will be mutually beneficial.

The committee’s aim is to contract with an independent licensed provider to establish a childcare center within The HUB to help young families who need childcare; as well as an adult daycare center to support the health, nutritional, social, and daily living needs of vulnerable adults in a group setting, by a professionally certified staff.

The committee’s recent report noted that “administration, programming, and overall financial and physical management of The HUB will be by a non-profit corporation, yet to be established, or in partnership with an existing non-profit organization. An executive administrator and board of directors (or trustees) will oversee operations, programming, rentals, and facility management. The expectation is that a combination of rentals/user fees, membership fees, tax-exempt donations, and grants will cover operating costs of The HUB.”

“Right now, we’re applying for a planning grant from the Dept. of Housing and Community Development to help us figure out if the programs we’re proposing are feasible and also to help us determine what building renovations would be needed and the estimated cost and potential sources of funding for those renovations,” Ribaudo explained.

“The application for that grant is due on April 13, with a decision to be made by them in June. Grant money would be used to pay consultants to conduct the feasibility study, draft a business plan, and analyze the building in terms of renovation needs for these purposes.

“The dilemma we’re facing right now is the RSUD school board’s interest in moving quickly to dispose of the high school building vs. the time it takes to obtain and implement the planning grant.”

The Vermont Council on Rural Development is helping the committee with its overall grant-seeking strategy and with technical assistance on the grant application.