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Guest column / Relocated Gunn House would satisfy multiple goals

Published 4:42 pm, Thursday, September 4, 2014
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The Kemper-Gunn project began as an effort by dedicated volunteers to save one historic structure. Like most Westporters, I supported this worthwhile goal. Later on, when as a selectman I was asked to head a team to make this project a reality, I realized that the benefits of this project could be even greater. It could be the first step in our collective effort to restore a sense of community to Westport's downtown.

Westporters differ on specifics when asked what they want to see downtown, but most agree on the need to retain our small town feel and character. For some, that means preserving smaller buildings, especially those that represent previous eras in Westport's history. For others, that means beautifying streetscapes, particularly streets like Elm that are uninviting because they are bordered by parking lots. Some lament that we have fewer locally owned shops and that our downtown is fast becoming exclusively chain stores. Others love the chains, but still want more diversity -- more restaurants, more interesting stores that you can't find in every downtown.

The Kemper-Gunn project gave us a unique opportunity to address these concerns by allowing us to partner with private entities that can provide the necessary resources and management skills to carry out the town's goals. It offers a chance to see if we can make this kind of public-private partnership work, and in the process deliver three significant "wins":

Permanently protect a historic structure, as the RTM resoundingly asked us to do.

Control the future appearance of the building.

Create space downtown for smaller, preferably local businesses.

Although each one of these goals had broad public support, the challenge was to develop a plan for achieving them or else there was no way that I or any other town officeholder would be willing to commit the town to the venture. And although our private partners were supportive of the town's vision, they had their own objectives, and both sets of goals had to be incorporated into the formal contract governing the project.

In addition, the venture was so novel that we knew the details of the final agreement were going to be scrutinized in great detail by the reviewing bodies. Putting the house on town owned land at a corner of the Baldwin parking lot would take away parking spaces (although not as many as some people have suggested).

This was not the first time recently that downtown parking spaces were eliminated for public projects (think of the pop-up restaurants and bump-outs for trees on Main Street), but parking is a serious issue, and every downtown change, even a new store replacing an old one, impacts it.

Partnering with a private for profit entity that would own and maintain the house spares the taxpayers the cost of moving, renovating and operating the building, but, as in every business venture, the party taking the financial risk gets more of the financial return. However, Westport will receive new tax revenue, and we also negotiated a share of any profits that the owner makes on its commercial rentals.

Finally, entering into a 98-year lease is a venture into the unknown, and the agreement had to provide for every contemplated contingency. Our team anticipated and reviewed these issues before presenting them to town boards for consultation and approval, and they were debated in public blogs. As a result, the project was approved, again and again, because the majority of our elected officials recognized its potential and promise.

I would like to thank everyone involved in this project, particularly my fellow team members who worked so hard on behalf of the town. It's not easy to give life to a vision like protecting community character, and it is even harder to satisfy all Westporters. But I predict that in a year's time our residents will be thrilled by the beauty of the restored Kemper-Gunn House, will see how perfectly it suits its new location next to Christ & Holy Trinity Church, and will be pleased by whatever business rents the house. And I trust that the partnership we put in place will serve as a model for future projects that benefit our town.

Helen Garten is a member of the Board of Selectman and chairman of the town's Kemper-Gunn Advisory Group.