It’s clear the Windham Town Council did what they felt they had to Tuesday night by purchasing a $400,000 parcel at the rotary. While it’s debatable that the purchase was necessary, it is understandable why the decision was made. The town needs more office space because its employees are facing cramped working conditions. It would have been better procedure, however, if the discussion had been more thorough and the public more involved with such a large expenditure.
While Smith Cemetery is understandably in need of expansion, a major reason for the land purchase is to build new municipal offices. While newer and more spacious offices for our dedicated town employees are warranted, perhaps the town should look into improving their existing town hall/community center in Windham Center.
The renovation could expand offices into the existing gymnasium area where Windham Center State Theater, town rec programs and elections take place. In that space, you could instead build two, or maybe another three, floors of office space, update Council Chambers and create more space for a bigger safe to hold precious town documents. Move registrations from its hard-to-reach, third-floor perch so elderly residents can access it better. There’s so many ways to utilize that gym; it’s an architect’s dream.
But the biggest thing expanding office space into the gymnasium would do is force the newly renovated $35,000,000 Windham High School to be the center of the arts and recreation community, which it was intended to do and which town and state taxpayers who paid for the magnificent structure deserve.
Think of it. Windham Center Stage Theater would no longer be relegated to an old town hall gym. Instead, the “do more with less” group could be elevated to the sprawling and beautiful high school auditorium stage with its 800 comfortable, sloped seats. That alone is worth having the town take over the entire town hall/community center. It would force the town to serve the arts community more fully. The only problem would be coordinating with the high school’s own activities and programs. But it seems where there’s a will, there’s a way, and everyone should agree that it’s almost cruel to have WCST using lousy facilities at town hall when there’s the arts equivalent of Shangri-La a few hundred yards away at the high school.
Some will argue, and they might be right, that renovating the town hall will cost more than building new. That is a valid point if money is the only consideration. But the town hall is an important historic building, having served as the town’s high school until 1964. It would be nice to see it continue to play a significant role in town business. Other benefits to renovation include not taking up more geographical area with town-owned property. That’s more land off the tax rolls and less revenue coming in year, after year, after year. There needs to be a cost-benefit analysis done before the issue is decided. Unfortunately, the town has not publicly held that discussion yet, even though the land has already been purchased.
The most obvious benefit to the town by renovating rather than building anew is that the prospect of more town-owned property in town means less space for businesses that will soon see that the rotary is a perfect location for commerce. Hancock Lumber’s expansion is proof of the trend. The point was made (or at least attempted) in this space last week that the town should shy away from owning pivotal acreage that could be developed by private enterprises. Business is the business of America as well as Windham. It provides jobs and helps reduce residential taxes.
The town purchasing property in a centralized location was unfortunate. It seemed to come from nowhere and within two weeks of surfacing, was approved by only four of the seven councilors. Two were absent from the meeting and it seems a vote of that magnitude, which may end in the relocation of town hall and expenditure of millions, should have been voted on with comments and votes from all seven councilors.