Select Board Unclear on Best Way to Move Forward with Town Museum

The Select Board grappled virtually with the options for a town museum at its meeting on October 25. The outcome: nothing is going to happen soon.

The source of stagnation is clear: there are two non-profits who say they need the same space. Bedford TV occupies the second floor of Old Town Hall. The museum organizers say they need the ground and second floors.

There’s a little more urgency to the long-standing discussion because the Bedford Historical Society, which would operate a town museum, is about to relocate its office and archives to the ground floor. The move will make way for renovation and expansion of the police station.

Last week’s lengthy back-and-forth did not result in a consensus on the Select Board. William Moonan remains the lead advocate, which has been true since the first museum study committee was set up in December 2013. Emily Mitchell wants to make sure Bedford TV is happy with the relocation, and also has other questions. Margot Fleischman also has taken that position.

Meanwhile, Bopha Malone would like the Historical Society to consider other locations. And Ed Pierce asked, “Are we in the museum business or not? Do we want to host a museum? I don’t think we have defined whether we want to.”

The board agreed to support a comprehensive space-needs analysis in fiscal 2023 that would include a prospective museum and Bedford TV. The proposal will soon be reviewed by the Capital Expenditure Committee.

Town Manager Sarah Stanton told the board the proposed fiscal 2023 facilities budget will feature the study. If approved, she said, “An outside consultant will meet with every department head, inventory existing space, work closely with our archivist, work with departments on physical space needs, storage needs,” including the food pantry and senior programming. “The consultant will give us prioritization and the Select Board would be asked to incorporate into a future capital plan.”

“We have a lot of possibilities, and I think the museum is going to be one of them,” Mitchell commented.

“Remember, this is a museum that the Historical Society will operate on behalf of the town, not a museum for the Historical Society,” said Moonan. Fleischman replied that “we are trying to get to clarity about what exactly we are doing and how we are engaging the town with a third party. I agree with you in spirit. In practicality, this is a question of making sure the Select Board is clear on what exactly we are getting ourselves into on behalf of the town.”

Mitchell remarked. “What I really have been looking for is a clear mission and strategic plan and a realistic roadmap.” She wondered about the reservoir of volunteers and supporters “when the current generation is gone? If this is a town museum, how are we going to make sure that this actually works? It needs to be a strategic answer.”

Like any new venture, there are no guarantees, Moonan acknowledged, and adjustments will be inevitable as time passes. “But I think it’s an exciting opportunity. I don’t think it’s a big risk to spend some money to get this going and then see how it goes.”

For Mitchell, nothing can move forward until suitable space is determined for Bedford TV. And that can best be identified as part of the space-needs study, she said.

“Old Town Hall makes sense to me for museum space,” Mitchell continued. “But I don’t want to put Bedford TV into a convenient space. I want to put it in the right space.” She added that it should not be viewed as one non-profit vying with the other; “we just need to think bigger.”

The Select Board received details from Facilities Director Taissir Alani on the cost of repurposing the town-owned building at South Road and Loomis Street – formerly the Veterans of Foreign Wars post – to accommodate Bedford TV.

The estimated price tag of almost $1 million covers interior demolition, relocation of technology, including Comcast and Verizon services, upgrading heat, ventilation, and air-conditioning, blackout panels for the studio, and a sprinkler system. The estimate included insurance and contingencies. “The idea is to create open space on all three floors, then build to suit,” Alani said.

In answer to a point raised by Moonan, Alani said work specifically tailored to Bedford TV would cost about $250,000. The remainder would be a general renovation for any tenant. “I’m excited about the VFW becoming something,” Mitchell mused.

Fleischman said she is concerned that the Society has indicated a willingness to absorb annual financial losses. “By what metrics do we consider success?” She noted that the Society compared the scenario to Depot Park, which has a revenue component, and the Job Lane House, which has no alternative uses.

The Historical Society’s proposal does not include a financial contribution to the town for the space. Fleischman pointed out that Bedford TV pays $35,000 a year. Moonan replied that several area museums do not pay rent for municipal buildings. “When we applied for approval of the Cultural District, we said a museum would be part of it,” he reminded. The museum could also generate retail business. “It’s not a simple equation.”

“Looming over all this is the fire station – we may have another available space that’s right in the center of the cultural district,” noted Mitchell. “Let’s keep moving archives and in the meantime figure out the best way to provide space and resources to all community organizations and municipal departments.”

During the pandemic, Fleischman observed, “we have learned how valuable our PEG provider is. This has added an extra layer to make sure we are not disrupting services upon which people are relying more and more.”

Moonan recalled a vote a few years ago conceptually supporting locating the museum in Old Town Hall. Fleischman responded that the vote was 3-2, and “there were very many things that needed to be worked out before we were willing to sign on the dotted line.”

“I think there is a value to the community,” she continued. “What we are struggling with is the value proposition. We need to know how much we are going to spend and what other things will have to take a back seat.”

Malone, who wasn’t on the Select Board for that vote, asked whether the Historical Society would consider other locations for the museum.  Mitchell pointed out that since the original studies, “Some of the options that had been considered in a hypothetical way were not meaningfully on the table.” Perhaps now another location might be suitable, although she added, “I think Old Town Hall is a great location.”

(Several of the prospective locations listed in the 2015 study committee report would have required additions or renovations, such as the police station, Town Center, and the multipurpose room of Town Hall.)

Malone said perhaps the museum can open on the ground floor. Moonan said that the new space will be the same as has existed in the police station: room for storage and an office. Fleischman pointed out that every museum scenario has been a phased approach, beginning with ground-floor storage and programming in The Great Room on the third floor.

Fleischman said assuming Bedford TV can be suitably relocated, “I would be comfortable with a museum in Old Town Hall if we have a full understanding of the business model.” Asked for specifics, Fleischman said, “We need to have some agreement for the use of space that has to be negotiated. “Mitchell said some of her concerns were “a little granular — things that were proposed about marketing or programing that didn’t seem accurate or didn’t seem fully informed. It raised some red flags for me.”

The vice president of the Historical Society, David Spencer, addressed the board, pointing out that a town museum shouldn’t be expected to make a profit any more than a police or fire department would.

“The vision is: if we do have a history that’s worth preserving, is there anything we should do about that and how? The value is not on a balance sheet. There is a rich history and we have not done a very good job of presenting it” for 75 years, he said.

Also speaking was Gretchen Kind, president of Bedford TV. “We are not against a museum,” she emphasized. But it has to be conditional on finding “a place for us to go that is suitable.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763

1 Comment

  1. Put the historical museum in the train depot building the town owns and rehabilitated near the bike trail. Then tear down the old VFW hall which is a dump not worth repairing and put up something nicer once its purpose is established.

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