Highland Committee considers community use

by Karina Coombs

16a-HighlandParkingMap

At least two dozen parking spaces will be available at the Highland Building according to Highland Committee member Matt Hamor. (Plan adapted by Maya Liteplo and Marjorie Johnson)

The Highland Committee met on November 29 to discuss the possibility of developing the Highland Building into a community or cultural center. The group noted strong town interest in having a centralized gathering space, discussed the populations that could be served and how revenue might be generated. Special consideration was given to the building’s proximity to the school. Management, cost estimates and funding were discussed, alongside a basic timeline for development.

The committee will continue gathering information regarding this proposal and it will be presented to the Board of Selectman on December 18 along with the two other options examined by the committee: a Department of Developmental Services (DDS) facility and an affordable housing option (“Housing authority ponders Benfield, Highland options,” November 28.)

While the committee has considered using the empty Highland building as both an adult day facility for the DDS and as a 10-unit affordable housing option, discussion on November 29 was reserved solely for developing a realistic plan of how to create a community or cultural center on the property. Committee members Priscilla Stevens and John Ballantine stated that the town of Carlisle has long desired some type of community facility, noting the Town Need Survey of 2009 “to which 1,750 voters responded [indicating] a strong interest in a community center for recreation and/or senior needs.” The same survey also showed that younger people wanted an indoor gathering space.

Demand for community center discussed

Stevens described the Highland Building as a space that could meet the needs of a variety of ages within town and offered a centralized space that would “promote a sense of community.” She pointed out that the town has already voted for and spent $445,000 to restore its exterior.

While the Council on Aging (COA) had expressed interest in the Highland property in the past, Ballantine noted that they had some concerns about sharing the facility with other organizations that may be more active and take up needed space. Ballantine, also referred to the 2009 survey, explained that the most active population within Carlisle is young families and participation rates slow down as the population ages, suggesting that a community space would be used more by young families than seniors, at least during certain periods of the day. Stevens pointed out that “if the library is used as an index of community gathering,” seniors were very active and involved during the day, when they share the library mostly with parents and caregivers of small children.

A list of potential groups that would use such a facility for regular meetings included Boy Scouts, book clubs and a variety of other special-interest groups and organizations, both large and small. Committee member Matt Hamor believed there were enough groups in town that would use the building if the town charged a reasonable fee. The committee also imagined a venue that could accommodate small or large events, performances, artist space and galleries, a gym, various receptions, and/or office space, among other options and depending on interest. The building could also be used by the town of Carlisle for a variety of needs.

Revenue would be generated through fees and rent that would cover operation of the building as well as some of the salary of a part-time manager. Highland Committee and Housing Authority member Randy Brown questioned if it was financially feasible to turn Highland into a community center and charge groups a fee to use the building. He noted that many potential groups could be identified, but questioned if they would pay a usage fee at Highland if they were already using other facilities in town, some at a reduced cost or even free. Stevens and Ballantine thought there would be a demand, and pointed out that some groups were not allowed to meet in certain buildings because of rules prohibiting political organizations, for example, and they could use Highland as an option.

School proximity, involvement

Brown suggested that opening Highland to the community as a rental facility could create some legitimate concern for the Carlisle School. He explained that some types of activities might not be able to occur during school hours, particularly those involving alcohol. The group then debated what groups or committees would have to be involved in scheduling events during school hours. Stevens stated that event scheduling would be a key role for a building manager, but that she would also want school authorities involved.

Brown did not want a scenario where the Carlisle School Committee would have to accept or reject each proposed event, but Stevens believed it was possible to operate in a “spirit of cooperation” where that would not happen. The committee agreed they needed to develop a plan for this with fellow Highland Committee and School Committee member Mary Storrs, who was not in attendance. It was also noted that opening up Highland for events during school hours might require more people to need a Massachusetts Criminal Offender Record Information report (CORI) and that could mean everyone from a building manager to potential renters.

Expense and revenue estimates

Development costs were estimated at between $1.5 and $2 million to restore the interior space, with three-quarters of this coming from the town of Carlisle and the rest from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding and private funding. An estimated project time line was between two and five years. Ballantine estimated operation costs at $30,000 to $35,000 annually and explained that rental fees could cover a large part of this and some portion of a part-time manager’s salary. He also mentioned that annual fundraising would be a key component in the long-term sustainability of the facility and used to grow an endowment for future repairs and building costs.

A Board of Directors and a part-time manager would manage the facilities and oversee all aspects of the property from maintenance to funding, with liaisons to the School Committee and Board of Selectman.

Concord’s FOPAC cited

Used as a potential development model, the group discussed the Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden Street in Concord. While the town of Concord owns the building, it is leased to the Friends of the Performing Arts in Concord (FOPAC) for one dollar. FOPAC pays for management, repair, and maintenance of the property. As a non-profit, FOPAC does not have to publicly bid for construction or repair projects and uses volunteers to fix things as needed and when funds are available. This process saves them a considerable sum of money. FOPAC has core groups that rent the facility at annual rates depending on frequency, storage and space used. They also have other space in the building that they rent out to various groups as needed. Stevens described the funding for the building as coming from grants, money raised from the groups that use the facility and private fundraising.

Parking space for 24 cars

In an effort to study the feasibility of such a project, Hamor described his site visit to Highland in his capacity as a Civil Engineer. Hamor determined he could easily fit 24 parking spots and still have room for a fire lane. The board seemed surprised Hamor could obtain this many spots and he explained that his estimate was conservative. Hamor’s plan also allowed for a green buffer zone around the property where there could be a fence or vegetation. His property deed research also appeared to show that there is no legal record that puts any educational restriction on the development of the Highland property.

Committee members will continue to meet with town officials as needed and gather information for their report. ∆