Disagreements leave old church to uncertain future.
EPSOM, N.H. (AP) — Hopes were high in Epsom when, in 2007, the historic Epsom Bible Church, through community effort and fundraising, narrowly escaped demolition and was moved half a mile to its current location near the town library.
But in the 10 years since, disagreements over what to do with the 1861 structure — and an unwillingness by taxpayers to invest in a project — has left the old church empty and unused.
“We want to bring life to that building, and purpose to that building,” said Virginia Drew, a longtime resident who’s helping to spearhead a community group hoping to find a way to use the building — and the money to fix it up.
The same year it was moved, a New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program grant helped make significant improvements to the building, often referred to as the meetinghouse. A deck and front steps were built, support columns installed, the roof was repaired, sidings repainted and furnaces installed.
But far more work needs to be done to make the building ready for public use, Drew said. The electrical wiring needs to be updated, a bathroom and septic system need to be installed, new exits need to be added, and accessibility issues for the disabled need to be resolved. The upper level of the meetinghouse, in particular, needs substantial “TLC,” Drew said.
Epsom voters have been loath to support major building projects. Residents twice rejected to plan to renovate the 19th-century building into a permanent town hall, and a new library wasn’t built until private donations made up most of the costs.
A significant part of the committee’s charge, Drew said, will be to find private donations or grants to fund whatever project the group ultimately settles on for the structure.
“It’s been a very difficult choice for people — between their tax bill and the things that they’d like to see for the town,” Drew said.
The question of what to do with the building has long been a bone of contention in town. Epsom still rents space at a strip mall off Route 28, and some remain wedded to the idea of the iconic meetinghouse serving as town hall, despite the idea twice failing at the ballot box.
Residents, meanwhile, will likely consider another proposal for a town hall this March. The select board has issued an RFP for contractors to bid on building new municipal offices near the police station. A similar plan was put forward to voters two years ago, but was narrowly defeated.
The meetinghouse committee is looking for a charter from the town to formalize its relationship with Epsom. Its leaders say it’ll help the group fundraise, and host listening sessions. Select board Chairman Don Harty said the charter was sent back to the town’s attorneys to iron out some details, but should be ready for approval in December.
Harty reiterated that he didn’t think the meetinghouse would work as a town hall, but he said he was supportive of the committee.
“It is a town building that needs to have something done with it - not just sit there and rot away,” he said.
And while progress on the meetinghouse has been stalled for a decade, he said the group’s leaders had a track record of getting projects off the ground in Epsom.
“I have great hopes for this committee,” he said.
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com