Town officials support Penquis plan for yellow school

Jan 09, 2018
Source: File

Union — Residents will vote on a proposal to turn the "Old Yellow School" into senior housing at a special town meeting Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Office.

Penquis hopes to renovate the Thompson Community Center and establish 23 elder housing units there. Opponents have raised concerns that it would displace the businesses and organizations already housed at the center, including a food pantry and daycare.

About 80 people attended an information meeting on the project Jan. 8.

Town Manager Jay Feyler gave a PowerPoint presentation and Jason Bird of Penquis explained the preliminary vision for the project.

Both stressed that the project is still in the preliminary phase and there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome to make it feasible, including the town vote next week.

"The status quo is not an option," Feyler said.

He said even if the Penquis plan fails to gain approval at the town meeting, selectmen and the citizens of Union will have to deal with the lease and the future of the center, which needs repairs.

"We realize that the thrift store, food pantry and daycare are very important to citizens, and last night Penquis agreed to look at all possibilities to keep all three in the building, if they wish to," Feyler said. "They may, however, find that alternatives we are working on are a better fit for them. ... We are just not going to boot them out without a home."

Town officials have done extensive research into how older buildings are renovated, meeting with USDA, Augusta Housing, Maine State Housing, Penquis and private investors.

"The fact is, that unless it is oceanfront property, not one building such as this in Maine has been renovated by private investors. Penquis was touted as a major force and highest quality of work in the area," Feyler said.

He said the board believes this is a great opportunity for the town, as it relieves the taxpayers of millions of dollars of potential liability, it relieves the TCC of the responsibility for major maintenance costs, but still allows the center to do the community programs that citizens want.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Martha Johnston-Nash | Jan 16, 2018 14:58

Usually I support what the selectmen do; I know they are doing what they feel is best for the town. However, the idea of getting rid of the Thompson Community Building has been chewing at my better sensibilities.

Why? Little to no input was sought before the first meeting, which was intended to be also the vote to allow the selectmen to dispose of the property. No one on the Board asked either the Union Area Chamber of Commerce or the Union High School Alumni Association to notify their members about the pending "deal" and get feedback. At that time, neither had they looked at alternative solutions.

Why, citizens asked, was the vote necessary so quickly? The answer was so Penquis could apply for grants right away. At the subsequent informational meeting, when asked why the vote was to be taken right away, the selectmen responded only that the original vote had been set and they wanted to follow up soon - nothing about the grant applications; nor did Penquis mention it.

When asked whether this included the whole building, they could not say. When asked what the town would be paid for it, they could not answer. When asked about whether the elderly housing would give preference to Union residents, the answer was very clearly no.

When asked how they could break the lease with the TCC group, the answer was they had been breaking the rules, including not paying the $1 per year lease fee. That was, whether or not intentional, a lie. I have seen the vouchers for every year since 2004 where they paid their lease. Before that, according to the prior town treasurer, they had always paid as well. When asked whether the selectmen had discussed the "deal" with the TCC Board, they said yes; but in reality all they did was present the TCC Board with an ultimatum.

When someone tries to push something past the voters by rushing, by not telling the whole story, by not seeking input, and by making threats like the Chair did by saying if this didn't go through he was washing his hands of it, I have to wonder what is going on behind the scenes and what the real object is. Selling - or giving away, we're not sure which - a building which has been at the heart of the community should take much more in-depth discussion.

From what I can see, this vote could easily take place in June when many of the residents are back from their winter retreats, and weather conditions are reasonable for getting the citizens out to vote. And maybe, come up with an alternative so we can ensure at least the brick building is preserved for the use of the community. At this time, what we've been asked to vote on is a very large question mark.

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