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Monday, February 13, 2012

Councilor suggests downtown site for Wallingford school offices

As published in the Record Journal, Saturday February 11, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education has looked in the past to move its administrative offices from Sheehan High School, and one town councilor thinks he’s found a place that will suit their needs as well as offer more downtown parking. Nick Economopoulos, a Democrat, said the town should investigate buying the property at 50 S. Main St., an building across the street from Town Hall, next to the post office.

According to Town Assessor Shelby Jackson, the property is appraised at $1 million and assessed at $728,000. Economopoulos said the property is listed for sale for $1.2 million. Jackson said the building, which was constructed in 1973, has 16,000 square feet and sits on a half-acre.

“It’s mostly medical offices,” Jackson said.

Economopoulos, a former school board member, said Sheehan High School was looking to begin a nursing program that would require a hospital- type setting. Moving the administrative offices would free space for that, he said.

Another advantage of the South Main Street property, in addition to office space, is the parking, Economopoulos said. The parking would be available for municipal use when the offices were closed.

“There’s 26 marked spaces in each lot, on the South Main side and the Center Street side,” Economopoulos said. “We’re killing two birds with one stone, increasing parking on the nights and weekends when the town is busiest, and finding space for the Board of Education.”

He added that town departments looking to expand could possibly use the space.

School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said the school district had explored moving the Board of Education offices “on a very basic level,” but the current fiscal situation doesn’t make it appear likely.

“It’s a dream of ours ... there’s a lot of possibilities if we were to leave Sheehan,” Menzo said. “We could expand some programming and look at some other opportunities. But, he added, “right now the finances wouldn’t allow us to make any changes.”

“We have to focus our attention at this point on getting budget passed by the mayor before we can investigate anything beyond that,” he said.

Chet Miller, a Republican Board of Education member, said the school district was interested in one point in property at 60 N. Main St., the old library building owned by Fred Ulbrich. “They looked at it, but I don’t know if there was any real sense of it being the right building,” Miller said. “But I know we’ve looked at properties before.”

Miller said he hoped that before the town purchased any properties officials would “look for alternatives within the existing school system.”

“We have a diminishing student population. It keeps dropping,” he said. “Some space has got to be freed up.”

Miller said he didn’t know specifically what the new office space would be used for.

Economopoulos said that the town had planned to spend $500,000 to improve the parking lot behind the businesses on Simpson Court, and that coming up with another half-million dollars shouldn’t be too difficult. He believes the town could buy the property for about $1 million.

But Craig Fishbein, a Republican councilor, disagreed, and said the town shouldn’t be in the business of buying properties. He said he wouldn’t support any purchase “until there’s an identified need for use by the town that’s viable.”

“The track record is clear, the town should not be in the general real estate business,” Fishbein said.

He pointed to the Wooding-Caplan property, located off Center Street, which the council voted to purchase in 1991 for $1.5 million, but has remained largely vacant since. A referendum in2006 overturned the Town Council’s decision to sell the property to a local developer.

Fishbein also mentioned the American Legion building, which was sold recently after a long legal battle over its protected status as a historic building, and a town-owned building at 390 Center St., next to Wooding- Caplan, that was ultimately demolished.

Economopoulos said he wouldn’t support going forward with the purchase without knowing the school district was ready to move.

As far as parking concerns, Fishbein said that the council was exploring the creation of a temporary parking lot on the Wooding-Caplan property.

Councilors will receive a report in March from the Engineering Department with drawings and cost estimates.

Dave Zajac / Record-Journal

Wallingford Councilor Nick Economopoulos has suggested the town look at buying the office building at 50 S. Main St. as a site for education offices and more downtown parking.