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Hope for Saving the Alms House is Fading Fast - Historic Landmark could give way to a Parking Lot

Last June this column included an article on Broome County's historic Alms House, located in the town of Dickinson on the campus of Broome Community College. The article suggested that based on recent developments at BCC, time might be running out for saving the building. Since that article appeared there have been two significant developments, both of which come as very bad news for the cause of preserving this historic landmark.

First, in April a legal notice appeared in the Press & Sun Bulletin requesting proposals for the rehabilitation of the Alms House. A proposal was submitted on June 28. The nearly twenty-page "Expression of Interest" detailed plans for converting the Alms House into a multi-purpose building, while respecting the architectural significance of the structure and complementing the character of the college campus. The plan proposed the following layout: on the first floor, a coffee house, deli and bookstore; second and third floors would provide student housing; and in the basement - an activity room, storage units and laundry facilities. Completion of the project was estimated to take twelve months. The proposal was submitted by an area developer with a successful track record of similar rehabilitation projects. As proposed, Broome County would retain ownership of the property, and total cost to the county was estimated to be significantly less than the cost of demolition. Too good to be true? On August 14, the developer received notification from BCC, stating: "on July 26, 2007, the Board of Trustees rejected the Expression of Interest deciding it is not in the best interest of the college to accept the terms and conditions of the proposal". No further explanation was given.

The other bit of bad news comes in the form of the "Saratoga Report". Last May Broome Community College announced that it had contracted the planning and design firm of Saratoga Associates, to compile information about the campus and submit recommendations for development of a "Master Plan". As stated at that time by the president of BCC, Dr. Laurence Spraggs, "the Master Plan will guide the growth and development of the college for the next ten years and beyond". Saratoga Associates, working in conjunction with the college and community, has now submitted a report. Among other things, the report recommends the Alms House be demolished, and provides an estimate of over one million dollars for the cost of demolition. No reason for the recommendation is given.

So what happens now? Eight years ago a similar fate was cast on the Alms House. It was spared at the last minute when the county refused to provide funds for its demolition, a reprieve brought about by strong public outcry to save the building. Once again we are dangerously close to losing this historic landmark forever. There is no question that preservation of our historic landmarks makes good financial, cultural, and environmental sense, but this situation in particular seems to have much more going for it. All things considered, the building is in fairly good condition, a seemingly good plan for adaptive reuse has been proposed by a capable local developer, and the building provides a unique and recognizable symbol for the college that can serve to differentiate it in a very positive way from any number of other community colleges. Most of all, the local community and student body have expressed a great respect for, and close connection with the history of this Broome County institution, of which the Alms House is the last tangible evidence of its existence.

It should be noted that a curious point has been raised recently in the argument for demolition. It has been suggested by some that BCC's image might in some way be tainted by being associated with the Alms House, an institution that historically housed the poor, homeless unfortunates of this community. The obvious argument to such a shortsighted view is to consider the intended purpose of the Alms House. For over one hundred years the building has stood testament to this community's humanitarian approach to social welfare in the nineteenth century. It takes some very creative thought to assume a "tainted image" could result from saving such an historic and benevolent institution. Can we seriously believe visitors to BCC may form a low opinion of the college because an historic building located at the entrance to the campus was once associated with the poor? Does the public think any less of Buffalo State College because of its association with the neighboring state hospital, an immense, foreboding insane asylum where presumably untold horrors were perpetrated within its walls? On the contrary, the college promotes and celebrates its association with the historic H.H.Richardson Complex. Currently SUNY Upstate Medical University is moving forward with its plan to possibly make use of Binghamton's historic asylumů no mention of "tainted image" there. The fact is, preservation of an historic landmark, regardless of how its past use may be perceived, tends to create a very positive image.

Is this the end for the Alms House? This week the college Board of Trustees meets to consider the Saratoga Associates report. It may be that the community finally loses the fight to save the building. Maybe the report's recommendation is ultimately followed, the building comes down, the Master Plan moves forward, and one more of Broome County's historic treasures is lost foreverů then it's all over. Fade to black.

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