FAYETTE — Starling Hall’s future as a community center is uncertain after Fayette residents rejected efforts to match a $500,000 federal grant by bonding the same amount in order to renovate the nearly 150-year-old building.
Town officials and a local nonprofit that has been raising money for the project must now determine whether to continue seeking funding or consider selling the property.
341 resedents supported a referendum question concerning the funding on November’s ballot, while 427 were opposed, meaning the town is no longer eligible for the $0.5 million dollar grant.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” said Joe Young, president of Friends of Starling Hall, the nonprofit that has led fundraising efforts to turn the town-owned building into a community center. With voters’ rejection of the referendum, grant organizations will now be less likely to help, Young said.
“It’s a whole million bucks that we were looking at,” he said. “And for a small town like this and a small group like ours, our options are pretty limited. It’s not every day that you have a chance to get $500,000 with another half a million dollar investment.”
The group plans to meet early next year to figure out its next steps.
Those who support funding Starling Hall, which is the state’s oldest Grange building, cite the building’s historical relevance and its potential as a hub for community events and gatherings.
Historically, Grange buildings were used by farmers to discuss cooperative activities. According to Fayette selectman Jon Beekman, Starling Hall is the state’s oldest Grange building but it is not the oldest Grange, as many farmers met in local homes and stores.
Fayette residents against the funding question were concerned that the dollar amount was too high, and that the money could be spent on other issues such as the roads.
Earlier this year, Fayette resident Brent St. Clair began circulating a petition to limit the amount of money the town can spend on the building to $5,000 annually. Any spending beyond that would require residents’ approval.
While knocking on doors and circulating the petition — which not only met the minimum signature requirement but also passed during the June Town Meeting — St. Clair said he met several residents who were struggling financially due to current economic conditions.
“People are hurting,” he said, “and you don’t know they are until you start going to see them and talk to them. I met a lot of people when I was getting the petition signed, and it was really humbling.”
And while some are just opposed to spending extra money, Young, of Friends of Starling Hall, said some residents would “love nothing better than for that place to burn down,” or at least to see the town sell it.
Town Manager Mark Robinson said he and selectmen have also heard suggestions from residents that they should sell the building, however no such decisions have been made. If officials did decide to sell the building, Robinson said that decision would ultimately need to be approved by residents at a Town Meeting.
“It has created a divisive atmosphere in a town that typically is unified in their support of projects that are beneficial,” Beekman said of the issue.
In an outcome indicitative of that division, voters in November approved spending $8,000 of town funds on a security system for Starling Hall despite rejecting the funding to turn the building into a usable community center.
St. Clair said he wouldn’t want to see the building torn down or sold, but that he and other residents are primarily concerned about the financial impact associated with renovations.
“They don’t want to spend the money,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Everybody I talked to, they all said they have nothing against the Hall, they just don’t want to see their taxes go up. That’s a lot of money that we could spend somewhere else.”
In 2015, Friends of Starling Hall estimated that it would cost roughly $600,000 to renovate the building. Planned renovations include adding a sprinkler system, a second entry point and an elevator to ensure accessibility to the second floor. Seven years later, Young said the total cost is now likely higher than $600,000, and that $1 million would have gone a long way.
And while the Hall’s future as a community center is now uncertain, the building itself isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Robinson, who preferred to remain neutral on the issue, said the town will continue to maintain the building as they are legally required to do with all municipally owned properties.