Museum pitched for old Bristol firehouse

BRISTOL — Since the Bristol Fire Department moved out of its dilapidated headquarters on North Street to take up residence in the brand new West Street fire station this past July, the classic 1897 firehouse has stood virtually empty.
But Bob Bernstein has a vision for turning the historic structure into a museum of 19th century New England woodworking machinery.
“I think this is good for Bristol,” Bernstein told the Bristol selectboard this past Monday. “It preserves the building, preserves it for public use, will be an attraction, Bristol will look good.
Bernstein proposes to found the museum with private funding and to receive nonprofit status through an existing Bristol 501(c)(3) organization.
He envisions a museum somewhat like the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vt., but for woodworking rather than for metalworking machinery and on a smaller scale. The exhibits would come from Bernstein’s own collection — he said he has “over 20 tons” of woodworking machinery, collected over a lifetime. This extensive collection, now stored “in various barns and shops and one rental unit,” would become the basis for the museum’s rotating exhibits.
Bernstein, a former town manager, said what would make the museum a great fit for Bristol is the town’s current wood economy and its rich history as a wood-manufacturing center, making everything from coffins to furniture to wooden pillboxes. As a young man, Bernstein himself worked for the venerable Drake, Smith and Company wood-furniture manufacturer, operating a sawmill on the 3:30-to-midnight shift. Drake Smith’s closure in 1984 marked the end of an era.
Bernstein read to the selectboard letters of support from the American Precision Museum and from the vintagemachinery.org website. Ann Lawless, executive director of the museum, described Bernstein’s endeavor as “practical and realistic” and praised him for his thoroughness in reaching out to local and statewide groups, the state Division for Historic Preservation, local and statewide museums and the national woodworking community.
Much of the selectboard’s discussion with Bernstein centered around the logistics of how he would meet the town’s criteria for the property.
Bernstein said that while he would prefer to keep the existing vehicle entrance doors, he would abide by the selectboard’s requirement to replicate the original exterior, including doors and windows. Bernstein also wants to renovate and use a separate 1970s building on the property as part of the museum. The selectboard has put no restrictions on keeping or tearing down the outbuilding, but has largely assumed that it might need to be torn down in order to make way for a septic system that would meet state code. The selectboard questioned Bernstein at length about how he would handle the “unknowns” surrounding the old fire station’s septic system. Bernstein responded, “There are a lot of unknowns and I’m willing to face them one at a time.”
Another focus of discussion was Bernstein’s willingness to pay full property tax. He said he was willing to pay full property taxes as a condition of the sale but wanted to keep open a discussion further down the line that the museum could become property-tax exempt.  According to Vermont statute, properties owned by nonprofits “may be exempted” from local property tax for a 10-year period “if the town so votes.”
Bernstein would also like to see 32 North St. come within the officially designated downtown area because this would extend the kinds of state and federal support the project could be eligible for.
Toward the conclusion of the discussion, Bernstein asked if the amount of each bid had been made public. Town Administrator Therese Kirby said no, but when pressed, answered that the other bid was about twice that of Bernstein’s.
“One of the things that the selectboard has said was that for them it was more about the use than the price,” she said.
Bernstein countered, “Then let me say that I want the town to feel like it’s getting the proper value and maybe I’ve presented a strong enough case that the project offers other values for the town beyond just the amount I’ve offered.”
The board had solicited ideas for what to do with the old firehouse, advertising widely, including with the state’s Division for Historic Preservation. Earlier this fall, Selectman Joel Bouvier even inquired if the Shelburne Museum was interested in moving the historic structure to its site, lock, stock and barrel, but museum officials declined.
In the RFP, the town estimated the cost of renovating the building at around $500,000 to $800,000.
Two people submitted preliminary proposals, but shortly before Monday’s meeting, Bristol resident John Monks withdrew his proposal to purchase and renovate the building for commercial use. That left Bernstein with the sole proposal before the town.
Selectboard members are expected to discuss Bernstein’s proposal and come to an official decision at their next meeting, Nov. 21, Kirby said. She said the selectboard essentially has three options: accept Bernstein’s bid and plan, reject his proposal entirely, or try to renegotiate Bernstein’s bid price.
“The selectboard always has the right to refuse an application,” Kirby explained.
She lauded Bernstein for his proposal.
“Bob did a great job with his presentation, and he has a well-thought-out plan,” she said. “The selectboard is sticking with their timeline that they laid out that if they were going to move forward with a sale that it would be in November 2016. So they’re continuing to move forward with their discussion.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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