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What’s Happening with Haddam Elementary School?

By Bob McGarry, Haddam First Selectman

(May 25, 2023) — This is the first in a series of articles I’m writing on the major projects we’ve undertaken in Haddam. Since we’re having an Open House at Haddam Elementary School (HES), followed by a discussion session about what to do with the building, I’ll start with that. The Open House is on June 8, 2023 at 5:00 p.m., with discussion starting at 6:30.

We purchased HES in 2019 when the school district closed it. At the time, we had no specific use planned for the building although we discussed the possibility of using part of the grounds for a community septic system. (I’ll write about that in another article).

In October and November 2019 more than 250 of us participated in workshops to develop strategies and goals for the future of Higganum Center; HES was one of the focus areas. (The full report, The Higganum Center Study, can be found on the town website). In the Summary Section, on page 9, the report states: “There is a strong desire to keep the HES property in constant use…There is a recognition that the entire property may not be occupied by a single use. The participants support tax generating uses alongside community services.”

The report also states, on page 30: “The roof is a concern and the capital planning committee should begin allocating funding to repair the roof.”  Since we bought HES, various community groups have used it and it’s been the site of many events, but no long-term uses have developed. We’ve had it listed for sale or lease with no serious interest. Last year, the town approved $400,000 for the roof repairs. We also received a $480,000 grant from the state for that and other site improvements.

We hired an architect, developed specifications and issued a request for bids for the repairs. Bids are due by the end of this month, but our architect estimates the total cost may exceed one million dollars. That made us ask “Do we want to spend that much on a building when we don’t have a long-term plan”? I hope it brings joy to your tax-paying hearts that the answer is “No.” (It was no surprise that those who responded to our unscientific, non-binding social media poll overwhelmingly agreed with that).

We’re at a crossroads. The roof leaks and has other issues. If we want to preserve the building or sections of it, we have to fix the roof over those areas. This is what led to my decision to hold the Open House. I need your input on the future of the building. All options are on the table.

I’d be remiss if I ended this article without discussing our recent application for the Communities Challenge Grant, round three. I’ll go into more detail at the Open House, but here’s a summary of it:

The Communities Challenge Grant is a competitive grant offered by the State Department of Economic and Community Development to municipalities. They offered it twice last year. We applied for both and weren’t selected. Both applications included a Senior Center, a generator at HES, and a sidewalk from there to Higganum Center. One of the weaknesses in the second application was we didn’t have a private partner.

When the grant was offered again this year we decided not to apply for it; we didn’t have anything new to add. That changed when Jeff Hartmann, the developer of the apartments on Brookes Court, said he might be interested in putting affordable senior apartments into HES. (Affordable housing is not the same as low-income housing. An individual earning up to $77,000 annually qualifies for affordable housing.)

After touring the school with his architect and finance manager, he proposed building thirty-three two-bedroom apartments, mostly in the new section of the building. We would keep the old section (the saw-tooth area including the multi-purpose room) which has enough room for a Senior Center/Community Center, Social Services office, Food Bank and other yet-to-be-identified functions. We’d maintain ownership of the playground area for a playscape and the Shad Museum, and the areas proposed for the community septic. The rest of the grounds would be common space that we could use for the Farmers Market, tag sale, etc.

While there are a lot of details to work out, the proposal gave us a key piece missing from our previous application. I decided to apply; I wasn’t going to miss the chance to get $4.5 million from the state for the housing, renovations to create a senior center, emergency generator and a sidewalk to the center. The only problem was this all came together on Thursday, April 27, 2023, the application was due on Wednesday, May 3rd and we needed to include a resolution from the Board of Selectmen (BOS) approving the application.

We scheduled a special BOS meeting for May 1st, posted the agenda and approved the resolution at that meeting. Applying for the grant does not obligate us to do the project; all it did was give us a chance to get $4.5 million for it. We still need Board of Finance approval and, if we are awarded the grant, the project will have to be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission and at a Town Meeting.

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