Hamilton town officials last month started an informational public relations campaign to pass a ballot question to renovate Town Hall in an election this fall.
Select Board Chair William Olson called a discussion of the matter “a kickoff to see what can be done.”
“We have to do something with Town Hall. To kick the can down the road will be a deterrent. We can’t not do anything, but last spring we unfortunately got a vote that didn’t go our way,” he said. “It’s important to listen the community as to why they didn’t vote for it.”
There have already been two unsuccessful ballot questions in election last May 6 and Dec. 3, 2020, despite approvals of the project and funding at Annual and Special Town Meetings last May 1 and Nov. 14, 2020.
The Select Board, members of the Community Preservation Commission and the now disbanded Town Hall Building Committee hope to combat the perception funding the renovation will come at the expense of other projects.
“People thought it was an either/or vote for the project or a school project,” Olson said. “We need to educate people it isn’t an either/or. We’ve talked to the School Committee about supporting the project. It’s not an either/or. It should be an and.”
Select Board member Shawn Farrell thinks people felt it was “a this or that.”
“We have to make sure misinformation doesn’t get out,” Select Board member Darcyll Dale added.
She also said people need to know CPC grant money for the project is not fungible or applicable to other projects.
“People will be for or against the project, but I don’t want them to be against it based on misinformation,” Olson agreed.
Farrell thinks the best strategy will be “getting voters to show up.”
“It’s getting people to show up who are for the project,” he said. “I don’t know if we can convince the people who voted no. It’s a matter of getting the people in our corner to show up.”
But Select Board member Rosemary Kennedy thinks any effort should also “reach out to the people who voted against it. It should be a two-pronged approach.”
She added the 123-year-old Town Hall “represents the history of our town. At one time or another it was a library and a theater. Having a usable Town Hall reflects pride in the community.”
Dale mentioned the lack of accessibility for wheelchairs, people using canes and even parents with children in strollers, a reference to the “temporary” access ramp that is at least 20 years old, possibly 30.
“There’s a gazillion reasons as to why this should be done,” Community Preservation Commission Chair Jay Butler added.
Town Manager Joe Domelowicz suggested a campaign style committee as opposed to a town sponsored committee “as if someone were running for office.” It may also engage in fundraising.
Increased costs could be a stumbling block. The cost in late 2020 was estimated at $9.4-9.8 million, including a contribution for the Community Preservation Commission of $3 million.
By early 2021 that had been revised to $8.8 million, with $3.4 coming from the CPC leaving an ask of $4.6 million of the town. It was later reduced to a $3.5 million ask, but “there will be a cost in rebidding,” as Farrell put it. “Not a lot, but enough that it could make a difference.”
Nevertheless he said, “We’ve spent so much, it’d be irresponsible to not continue,” a reference to over $300,000 in design costs.
How this will play out through Town Meeting is unclear. Domelowicz isn’t sure Town Meeting approval is required given the body has already approved the project twice.
Farrell talked about not presenting a number for approval at Town Meeting just a “not to exceed” number. He also said some CPC grants have had lengthy eligibility dates, but Butler feels, “Town Meeting will have to approve a new grant due to the sunset clause,” a feature that gives grants an expiration date if unused.
“I’m not sure what we can have a grant without Town Meeting approval,” Kennedy offered.
Whether a question will be on a state primary or general election ballot on a special town election is also unclear, pending research by Domelowicz. It will not be on the ballot for the annual spring town election.
Regardless, the design will not change. As approved at Special Town Meeting in October 2019, the design calls for adding an elevator to the rear of the building, keeping the Grand Staircase, concreting the southside/first floor meeting room into offices and the upstairs office complex into a meeting/performance space, as well as new handicapped accessible bathrooms, renovation to the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, septic, sprinkler and other systems and repairing bowed, rotting wood.
“The design is the charge,” Butler said. “I wouldn’t think we’d change it now.”
Olson feels the design and previously used costs are “very reasonable based what other towns spent.”
Farrell asked if the renovation could be done in phases, but Dale told him a certain level of renovation triggers compliance with regulations as if it were a new building.