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Citizens breath new life into uses for Prescott School

Citizens breath new life into uses for Prescott School
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GROTON — With palpable energy buzzing throughout the Prescott School building, over 70 residents attended Saturday’s open house hosted by the Municipal Building Committee for Prescott School.

Listed on both the state and National Register of Historic Places, the former school is considered to be a unique municipal asset, situated in the heart of downtown Groton that has functioned as an educational facility serving generations of Groton residents.

Today, it is home to the Groton-Dunstable School District Administrative offices.

There is a great deal of under-utilized space in the building. Following defeat of a proposal to sell the building to Greg Yanchenko last fall, selectmen appointed members to the MBCPS to explore and evaluate the town’s options for using the Prescott School while retaining ownership of it.

Committee members, including Chair Greg Sheldon, Vice Chair and Groton Selectman Anna Eliot, Clerk Halsey Platt, Val Prest, Becky Pine, Gary Green, and School Committee Chair Alison Manugian were assigned to fulfill the following charge (www.townofgroton.org):

The committee shall be responsible for providing a vision for the future use of the Prescott School by gathering input from citizens, users and potential users, reviewing conceptual designs, making recommendations and acting in an advisory capacity for the Prescott School.

The Prescott School is a 27,000-square-foot building that sits on a 2.81-acre parcel, with wetlands in the back, close to the Nashua River Rail Trail. The Groton-Dunstable School District plans to maintain its administrative operations on the top floor of the building, leaving the main floor that has classrooms and a gymnasium, and the basement, which has additional classrooms and a kitchen/cafeteria available for consideration.

The Friends of Prescott, formed by a group of concerned citizens whose goal is to preserve the Prescott School as a community asset, assisted the MBCPS in organizing the Saturday morning tour and brainstorming session. Members include Mary Jennings, Chair, Bruce Easom, Pat Lawrence, Berta Erickson, Richard Lewis, Jim Simko, Pam Smethurst, Sharon Sullivan and Ann Wortman.

“This is intended to be a community conversation,” said Sheldon. “Along with the Friends of Prescott, we have been collecting interest forms, looking at what commercial and community uses would best be served at Prescott and what the business models would be. Our goal is to consider how we envision the use of the Prescott School as the town grows. Your voice and your opinions are most important and we’re hoping to build off of your ideas.”

Halsey Platt and Gary Green introduced the initial categorical breakdown of concept ideas covered, including leased space/commercial use (such as art studios, retail, cafes), arts (performance space, classroom/lesson space, exhibit space), community (meeting space for groups and clubs, multigenerational-senior or youth activities, community gardens, kitchen, cooking lessons, youth home economics), recreation/fitness/sports (exercise/dance classes, youth sports, adult sports, parent-child classes), municipal (meeting space for town committees, town hall ‘overflow’ space in future), education (lecture/discussion space, adult education/lifelong learning/historical programs, central office administrative offices), and others.

Val Prest spoke to the site and the structural Integrity of the building and acknowledged the anticipated zoning change impacts for some of the recommendations. He presented a drawing of the site plan, identified the wetlands area, and pointed out the remaining operating area that could be used for parking and other purposes.

“The building is solid construction with brick walls and timber rafters,” Prest said, after identifying himself as a licensed structural engineer. “There are classrooms that could become offices, but further investigation into the building’s condition and the standards and codes that would need to be met for today’s use would be required,” he concluded.

The floor was opened to hear the public’s thoughts. Immediately, hands flew up

Mike Roberts suggested, “a visitor’s center — one that would not necessarily need to be staffed, but where guests could walk in and get information about Groton.”

Camilla Blackman suggested a Board of Health-approved community kitchen, for making jam or other foods that require a large space or for supporting the Groton farmer’s market.” She also suggested space for youth gatherings, where kids could play basketball or otherwise socialize.

John Ott, president of the Groton Historical Society, asked about considering Prescott as a place to keep the town’s historical artifacts as well as having it be home to an exhibition space.

Mary Jennings suggested much needed space for the growing Lifelong Learning program, and as an example, presented the idea of “brown bag lunch sessions” during weekdays when schools are in session, a time when working and nonworking adults could take a break mid-day.

Parlaying on this idea, Becky Pine stated that the largest space capacity at the Groton Public Library is for 80 people and that she could see Prescott allowing for meeting space that could hold 100-120 people.

Pam Gill suggested “space for showing movies or films, even music and concerts,” and a clothing store, “somewhere you can buy a pair of socks or a T-shirt without having to drive to Nashua,” or an indoor swimming pool.

Sue Lotz suggested integrating an art gallery with a restaurant and a place for music while Joni Parker Roach chimed in, saying that mixed businesses would work well for the community.

Prest said the MBCPS would look into the suggestion of mixed use, but that the resulting impact would put greater constraints on the building due to fire codes, weight per square foot and flooring requirements.

Sue Lotz also suggested considering using Prescott as a new Senior Center, providing a more centralized location.

After the MBCPS chairman pointed out that, “Approximately 3,000 of the 11,000 Groton residents are seniors,” Becky Pine responded, “The senior target market is growing in Groton and the MBCPS has been in touch with both the Groton Council on Aging and the director of the Groton Senior Center. They are also gathering their own information and are holding focus groups this month.”

This resulted in a follow up comment from the audience, with a request to “Look at the Senior Center, Prescott School, Country Club and all of the buildings and the suggested programs — to propose ideas of where can we logistically best hold them and where we can afford to do them.”

Diane Hewitt recommended a trip to UMass Lowell’s new student center, saying, “It’s a multiple use space for students to come and go; a space where students can get food, hold meetings, attend lectures, and make things. I believe it would be a good model to look at.”

Final suggestions included after-school programs, baby-sitting and the desire to pull in/reach out to the generation of parents who were all out at the soccer fields on this particular Saturday morning.

At this point, Greg Yanchenko, sounding a bit frustrated, exclaimed, “I brought my proposal to town meeting. I talked to people about it. Implementing a project like this requires partnership and collaboration first and foremost, but there has been no sense of a partnership.”

Sheldon’s responded, “This is the beginning of a new process and you are right, partnership and collaboration are key. We want to take this process and turn it into a plan, involving all of you and the energy you bring here today.”

Following the close to the brainstorming session, guests were provided with an opportunity to vote on their top four ideas. They were asked to select a specific idea rather than a general, categorical idea, from a number of lists taped up on the walls. Given sticker dots numbered one through four, guests were asked to register their preferences in priority order. They could not put more than one sticker on any one proposal, and they were not required to use all four stickers.

During the post meeting voting, Luke Kenney, with his wife Katie, owners of the Blackbird Cafe in the Mill Run Plaza, said, “We would love to be part of the future development of this building, with the thought of moving the Blackbird Cafe into the basement of Prescott, in consideration of the potential mixed-use concept.”

For more information, visit the Prescott Municipal Building Committee website: www.townofgroton.org; or the Friends of Prescott website: www.friendsofprescott.org.

To share you thoughts and ideas for use of the Prescott School Building, email prescott@townofgroton.org .

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