Funding OK'd for Wakeman Town Farm renovations
Published 11:14 am, Thursday, March 12, 2015
The building was once used by the Wakeman family as a place to clean their vegetables and pluck their chickens.
The group's request for a $667,000 appropriation from the Board of Finance, which also includes funds for the maintenance of the main farm house -- which the town owns -- was recently approved in a 6-1 vote.
"That might sound like the town wrote us a check," said Colasurdo. But, she added, the town will be paying the $261,000 cost to repair and rehabilitate the farmhouse on the Cross Highway property. "They are obligated to make those repairs," she said.
The town is also giving the farm $300,000 in a 20-year-loan that would be used to rebuild the classroom at the Wakeman Town Farm Sustainability Center, she said. And, she added, farm officials agreed to contribute an additional $106,000 from its reserves and fundraising efforts. That money would be used to equip the classroom with a community room and kitchen, where cheese-making and canning will take place, Colasurdo said.
The upgrade of the classroom will involve preserving the shell of the current building, shoring up the foundation and adding new walls and floors and windows, making it a year-round facility. Right now, the structure is not insulated and can be used only in good weather, she said.
She said the renovations will help increase the number of classes and other activities offered at the farm. We can host programs all year round," she said. "We'd like to make this place a community hub."
Last week's finance board vote came without much fanfare and was less dramatic than a meeting held on the appropriation in February. That's when about 100 farm supporters, including many high school students, came out in support of the funding proposal.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, at last week's finance meeting, said that when the item was up for consideration the last time, it was clear that more time was needed, "as the background and history of the farm were not well known by all on the Board of Finance."
He said he also realized that some aspects of the proposal needed to be reworked by the Wakeman Town Farm Committee and that farm supporters "needed to make a greater contribution to the project than was contained in the original proposal."
He said he was "strongly in support" of the proposal and appropriation request "as it now stands."
He then outlined the new proposal -- including what the town will be contributing and what he considered are its benefits.
"In the proposed arrangement, the town will contribute $261,000 to repair and rehabilitate the many needs of the existing core farmhouse, which is a town-owned, historically designated building," Marpe told finance board. "We have a responsibility to maintain it in a state of good repair."
He also outlined the proposal for the loan to WTF and the amount the grassroots group would be contributing.
"I believe that one of the initial challenges for the town and Board of Finance with approving this proposal had been some collective concerns over the reporting and accountability structure between the Wakeman Town Farm and the town," Marpe said. "I am committed to clarifying those responsibilities and establishing an improved reporting and oversight structure that allows the town to have the financial and operational transparency that we demand of any public entity, along with clearly defined reporting relationships."
Marpe said "the improvement that we fund here tonight will assure that the Wakeman Town Farm, which has been a part of Westport's history and culture for over 100 years, will continue to thrive as a vibrant learning environment, sustainability center and community gathering place for generations to come."
"We really appreciated the first selectman's support in this," Colasurdo said.
There was some discussion by the board on the breakdown of the $667,000 with finance member Tom Lasersohn saying the appropriation would be more like a subsidy.
He said the board was elected to represent the town's 27,000 plus residents, "not only those that come into the room" supporting their own cause.
"This is absolutely wrong," he said. "It's a betrayal of public trust and I oppose this."
Lasersohn was the lone dissenting vote.
On Tuesday, Colasurdo said her group is busy preparing for the next step in the process. "Now that we have the funding, we have to get a number of other town approvals," she said. "We'd like to get this project completed by the fall.