How to deal with the General Wait House is obviously a difficult and complex issue for the town. The property has historical value and it is without doubt an important landmark for The Valley. But it is currently under-utilized and has negligible revenue streams or funding sources associated with it. Thus, it has now become a burden to the taxpayer.
The current plan is to spend something approaching $100K to stabilize the property. My question is: “And then what?” One thing I know about old properties is that when you start to pull that string all sorts of unforeseen issues start popping up. So, whatever gets spent to stabilize the property today is likely just a down payment on the ongoing rehabilitation and maintenance costs in the future.
I don’t believe we should start down the slippery slope of committing to a cost stream without truly understanding in detail the potential revenue and funding streams. That’s like spending up the credit card with no clue how you’ll pay it down.
I also believe that serious consideration should be given to selling the property. Regardless of historical significance, old properties are a waste and eventually an eyesore if they sit unused. Perhaps better to have someone purchase the property, renovate it sensitively and have a business case for how they’d make it sustainable. The property market is incredibly hot right now and buyers are out there. As an added bonus, a buyer would become a taxpayer and increase our Grand List. If the town wants to maintain some element of control for whatever reason, perhaps there is even a Public Private Partnership (PPP) option.
Waitsfield spent a lot of money on new town offices several years ago, rather than renovating existing structures it owned, like the Wait House. This has implications on what we can afford to spend now. Waitsfield tax rates are high and, while the select board has done a pretty good job managing our debt, it is still probably higher than it ought to be for a town of our size. While the sentimental value of the Wait House is not insignificant, I am not particularly interested in writing a blank check for sentimentality.
I cannot support a commitment of funds this year for the Wait House without understanding the longer-term implications and gaining comfort that it is an economic plus for the town and not a tax black hole. I would call on the select board to detail at least two options: (1) a five-year business case for keeping the property, including realistic costs estimates and a revenue/funding plan; and (2) a case for selling the property, either outright or in some form of PPP.
Tax implications for each option need be presented. Only then will we have the information needed to decide if spending money this year and increasing our tax burden makes economic sense in the long run.
Mooney lives in Waitsfield.