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Grant could aid Panton cupola fix

PANTON — In September 2011, about a dozen Panton residents voted at a special meeting not to spend $70,000 to fix both Town Hall’s roof and the building’s cupola with the cupola in place, opting instead to spend about $32,000 to remove the cupola and fix the roof.
Since then, the cupola has been sitting on blocks behind and to the left of Town Hall, waiting while Panton officials have understandably dedicated limited town funds to more pressing needs.
Now, there is a chance that Panton’s Town Hall, which the town has owned for 84 years, will get its crowning structure put back.
Before then, the town’s two-member selectboard wants to move cautiously to make sure residents are not on the hook for any of what Panton’s Town Hall Committee estimates as the $75,000 cost to repair, paint and put back the cupola. 
A key piece to the funding puzzle recently came from the Walter Cerf Community Fund, administered by the Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury. The fund awarded Panton $25,000 toward the project in memory of late philanthropist Walter Cerf.
“Those who knew Walter say that he loved exploring the back roads in Addison County and admiring the town buildings and churches that are at the heart of its small communities,” said Carolyn Weir, who helps administer the Cerf Fund for the foundation. “This grant to Panton was thus a fitting extension of Walter’s legacy and his love of the region.”
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said he is “absolutely” grateful for the grant for which Panton’s Town Hall Committee — it was formed to help deal with the many repairs and upgrades the 158-year-old building needs — successfully applied.
Hall said of he and fellow selectman John Viskup, “I’m sure we would be” supportive of the cupola project if they could be assured it would not require town funds, now or for future maintenance of the cupola.
But Hall noted not only the other work needed by Town Hall (including an upgrade to its office bathroom, the town’s share of the cost of an ongoing energy and heating upgrade being performed by Green Mountain Power, new front stairs, and a new handicap access ramp), but also the selectboard’s other fiscal responsibilities, such as maintaining the town shed and highway equipment that in turn keeps its roads in shape. 
“Those things are essential for the day-to-day operations for the town of Panton. If I don’t get those things done and fixed, it’s going to be problematic for people. People need to get to work. People need to get their milk out. So those are the things I’m worried about,” Hall said. “A cupola? I’m not really worried about a cupola at this time.”
On the other hand, Town Hall Committee member David Raphael, also the longtime Panton Planning Commission chairman, said he is confident the cupola project can be done without taxpayer money.
“We have made the commitment, the Town Hall Committee and myself, who wrote the grant, to raise all the money necessary not only to get rid of all the lead paint, but repair the cupola, repaint the cupola, get it on top of Town Hall, and endow a maintenance fund with fundraising, gifts and in-kind services,” Raphael said. “That absolute intent, whatsoever, is to use no taxpayer money. That is our commitment.”
Raphael said the selectboard’s hesitancy comes in part from a lack of communication, for which he takes some responsibility.
“I was supposed to have gone before the selectboard a week ago to walk them through this process and assure them,” he said, adding, “I owe Howard a phone call.”
Raphael said he is confident in the $75,000 cost.
“We have gotten several different estimates from contractors over time who have done similar work,” Raphael said, adding the committee has also consulted with Vergennes architectural designer Norm Lebouef. “I think we’ve got a pretty solid estimate for the outside cost of this project, and on top of that an amount of money that we would obviously want to put in an interest-bearing account (for future maintenance).”
He also believes that donations of cash, labor and in-kind services, some of which are already pledged, can be raised to join with the Cerf grant and fully fund the project.
“We are going to begin an intensive fundraising effort. I am confident, or at least highly hopeful, we can raise all the money necessary,” Raphael said.
Hearing of Raphael’s remarks, Hall said the selectboard would keep in mind its fiscal responsibilities and wait and see the evidence firsthand: Raphael is scheduled to meet with them on Oct. 26.
“Right now we have no information,” Hall said. “So until we have some concrete information on what it costs, what work is going to be done, how is it going to happen, what’s the plan, all these things that need to be done, there’s no point of cashing the Cerf grant and going into the commitment.”
Hall also said he is not sure how strongly residents support the project.
“I’ve had people say everybody wants this. And then when I’ve investigated it was like, no, I really don’t feel strongly about this at all,” he said.
Raphael believes residents would back the project.
“The concern is what is it going to cost us,” he said. “I think most people will say if we can get that back up on the building without an expenditure of tax dollars and can maintain it, they would be supportive of the effort to do that.”
He also called the building and its cupola a “symbol of Panton’s history,” noting the building with its cupola are on Panton’s welcoming signs and were on its 250th anniversary t-shirts.
“I think of our cupola and town hall as an icon,” Raphael said. “We don’t have town recreation fields. We don’t have our own school. All we have is our little town hall.”
Weir said the foundation would wait for Panton officials to work things out.
“Of course, the project needs to have the support of the town of Panton to be successful. The Walter Cerf Community Fund will continue to connect with those involved to better understand the town’s current level of interest in the project and whether a grant for the project is still truly useful,” she said. “The Walter Cerf Community Fund remains committed to supporting the town hall restoration project if the selectboard and the Town Hall Restoration Committee become aligned in their support for this project.”
Hall, who has experience with grants as a Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes board member, added he wants to make sure that grant is well spent.
“I know how valuable that grant money is. I don’t want to waste it and put it in a cupola and have it sit on concrete blocks. And all of a sudden it just sits like an old rotten building and it’s just wasted,” Hall said. “Somebody could really use that money.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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