The Wilton Garden Club appealed to the Board of Selectmen at their Monday night meeting, asking for the town’s financial help in maintaining Old Town Hall. Bound to a 90-year-old agreement with the town requiring the club to care for the historic building, the club is now facing financial difficulty and having trouble affording the responsibility for the historic building’s upkeep.

They told the selectmen they wanted to bring the issue to their attention “during the early stages of Town budget preparation,” for the 2014-2015 budget work.

Nan Merolla and Suzanne Knutson, president and vice-president of the club, made a comprehensive presentation outlining how difficult it has been for the all-volunteer, not-for-profit club to continue to afford the responsibility of caring for Old Town Hall, which was built in 1832 and is listed on the national register of historic place. The club has been doing so since 1934 after the current town hall replaced Wilton’s historic one.

Not many town residents even know of Old Town Hall’s existence or the Garden Club’s caretaking role. The club led a major renovation of the building after it was condemned and nearly torn down in 1977. After renovations were completed and OTH reopened in 1980, the town and the Garden Club signed a letter of understanding:  WGC accepted the job of caretaker and rental agent, agreeing to pay the town $1 annually for the use of the building and accepting responsibility for covering all operating costs. They did so primarily from rental fees from use of the building by outside groups and individuals for events (parties, meetings, etc.) and their one yearly fundraiser—the Mother’s Day Plant Sale (major expenses for the building were referred to the town).

The club was able to make do until recently. “You can directly point to the start of the recession, when our revenues fell off the face of the map,” Knutson explained. She outlined several factors that have contributed to their mounting losses:

  • Event rentals declined as people entertained less during the recession and long-term renters (dance instructors, pre-school programs, etc.) cancelled rental contracts;
  • Increased competition from other venues that offered rental space—Wilton Library, Ambler Farm, Trackside, Comstock Community Center, Cannon Grange, etc.;
  • Changing demographics reduced Garden Club membership—Knutson cited fewer stay-at-home-moms and more women in the workforce; fewer volunteers meant the club had to hire professionals to do work they had typically handled themselves in the past;
  • Increased club activities around town—including multiple beautification projects on town properties and spaces, social service projects for senior citizens and garden therapy;
  • Skyrocketing costs caused by snow plowing and storm cleanup after unexpected weather events of the last two years.

The WGC asked the selectmen for the Town to assume the utility costs while the club would continue to pay other operating costs.

“In the past five years, the average loss is over $5,000 [a year]. This is recurring, and five years is enough of a data point. This is a shift and we can’t continue to fund this anymore. Our recommendation is to look at the utility expenses, and we’re hoping that we can share the cost, because it’s in everybody’s interest that Old Town Hall remain viable and open,” Knutson told the selectmen. “We’re hoping we can share the utility cost—we’re willing to shoulder the burden, run it, and share some of the expenses, but all of it is a problem.”

According to financials provided by the WGC, utilities expenses for the building averaged slightly under $5,000 a year over the last five years. Operating expenses averaged around $7,000.

They also said they’d revisit the issue in two years and re-examine the club’s ability to re-assume total responsibility for all expenses again.

WGC officers outlined a plan for trying to increase rental income and improve their financial situation. Some of those action items included updating their rental marketing materials, increasing advertising and publicity, bringing rental rates more in line with competitors, improving the facilities and broadening their fundraising programs. They’ve also focused on increasing energy consumption, working with the town’s Energy Commission and pursuing a “Bright Ideas Grant” to identify energy savings.

The selectmen were generally impressed with the presentation, and acknowledged the contribution the WGC has made to the town, not only with their continued commitment to the OTH upkeep but with the other projects the club does around town.

“It reflects a very close, long-term partnership with the town, or the place would have been long gone. We all have got to work together to come up with equitable solution,” First Selectman Bill Brennan told the club members.

Richard DuBow suggested the club pursue “something as simple as an annual appeal letter—letting people know that there is a need to support this facility, that it does have a historical perspective, and it can be very effective.”

Hal Clark echoed the board’s general sentiment in thanking the club, saying, “Five thousand dollars—that compensates the Garden Club about 10-cents an hour. I think for the amount of effort you put in for Wilton, it’s the least we can do.”

Brennan encouraged the club to increase the spotlight on the club’s contributions to the town, as well as publicizing the facility as one that is attractive and available to rent. “Focus on the best way, the cheapest way to get the message out there. A lot of people simply don’t, and a lot of people don’t know what the garden club does for the community—you’ve designed the flower baskets that hang around town, the club takes care of the maintenance of  Veteran’s Memorial Green, there’s a lot of [other] work that not everybody is aware of. We’ll work this out. The work of the Garden Club is just simply too important to the community, and we want to recognize it.”

He added that the timing of the club’s presentation was good, as it precedes any budget conversation the board will have.