Wakeman Town Farm advocates try to cultivate finance support for renovations
Education programs about farming, sustainability and the environment are what Wakeman Town Farm cultivates.
So when a proposed $667,000 appropriation for renovations at the farm/education center encountered scrutiny at Wednesday's Board of Finance meeting, First Selectman Jim Marpe withdrew the bonding request in favor of an informational discussion.
"In the days since I requested this be placed on your agenda, it has become apparent that there is a great deal that is not known by everyone about the Wakeman Town Farm and there are many questions," Marpe said, referring to the money sought for repairs and reconstruction of facilities at the Cross Highway property.
About 100 farm supporters, including many high school students, attended the finance meeting to hear representatives of the town-owned farm make their argument for support of the loan.
Some of the most fervent support, however, came from finance board member Michael Rea, who waxed emotional in what he described as an obligation to make the farm renovations.
"This is an asset that we should maintain," he said, sharing a story of how former farm owner Ike Wakeman and then-Board of Finance Chairman Ed Mitchell agreed on the sale of the property through a handshake.
"In a day where we're socially challenged ... here's something that brings our kids, our community, in contact with the earth," he said.
Other financiers tried to focus the discussion on finances, including Tom Lasersohn, who noted that it was originally a business transaction from which the Wakeman family benefited.
"For someone to say that there's an agreement and there's no documentation of what the agreement holds, is not something that anyone can respond to," he said, noting that the $350,000 purchase of the land amounted to about $105 million by today's terms. "The town paid a lot of money at the time for some land."
Financier Brian Stern said the board's role is "essentially like loan officers," so it was important for board members to understand the economics of how the money would be repaid. He and Lasersohn noted that fundraising by the farm has declined, according to its records.
"What is your ability to sustain the loan payments?" Stern asked rhetorically, noting that other nonprofits in town, including Earthplace and the Westport Country Playhouse, have strong donor bases.
"The fundraising ability is kind of the ability to survive," he said. "The playhouse, for example, would not survive ... without a consistent donation base."
But some in the audience showed no patience for details of the fiscal discussion, including David Tucker who shouted, "Sell me the property and I'll pay for it! Seriously! This is ridiculous!"
Architect Peter Wormser, a farm volunteer who has helped with farm renovations and repairs, presented plans to the financiers about the work.
"There are a number of deferred maintenance items that have not been attended to ... Putting more money into fixing what's there seems like putting good money after bad," he said. "Our proposal is to rebuild that portion of the house."
The new space would include a large classroom area for indoor programs, handicapped-accessible bathrooms and new living facilities upstairs, including a laundry room and additional bathroom.
"We represented that we would be self-sufficient ..." said its Wakeman Farm board member Cathy Talmadge, who also serves on the RTM from District 6, referencing when the town farm began operations five years ago. "However we never expected this level of deferred maintenance."
"It's really been 41 years since the town acquired the property," she said, noting the decay has been ongoing for decades, including problems with the roof and chimney.
The question was raised if whether, given the number of students who visit the farm for education programs during school days, it would be appropriate for the Board of Education to be asked for financial support.
"In no way are we getting any money from the board of ed, at the moment," Aikenhead said.
A group of students also told the board they support loaning the farm money for the upgrades.
"The pride I feel for it I cannot put into words," said Charlie Colasurdo, 15, one of several young people who spoke about the farm. "I hope that you will join us in helping to make our dreams a reality."
"I can't imagine doing anything else besides environmental science," Nick Moro, 17, said of his college plans following his experiences on the farm.
Moro, who has also worked as a counselor in the farm's summer program, said its value cannot be measured simply in financial terms. "I don't think you can value the experience that these kids have with the money, because in a world and time when kids are more excited to pick up an iPhone than go outside ... the smile on these kids' faces can't be overstated."
Mike Constantino, whose grandparents ran the farm, said the Wakemans settled in Westport in 1626, "11 generations ago ... I just think it's a very important piece of our town's history," he said.
"We've had a very constructive evening," said Chairman John Pincavage.
"I think as a group we need to go back and digest this ... and at our next meeting we'll have a vote on it," he said.