Beware the hidden costs of buying vs. renovating

BRATTLEBORO — The town of Brattleboro is considering options for the police station. One alternative is to purchase the Reformer building on Black Mountain Road. Although this alternative is estimated to cost approximately $1 million less than renovating the Municipal Center, other costs and considerations make investing in that structure for the police a better alternative than purchasing additional real estate.

In addition to the renovation cost, the 22,562-square-foot Reformer building would have operating costs for utilities, cleaning, and maintenance. Based upon typical operating cost per square foot, these costs would amount to $70,000 to $100,000 per year.

These costs do not include other capital needs for this 35-year-old building, such as window replacements and repairs to the roof, pavement, and boiler.

Over the life of a 20-year bond, the value of the annual operating costs alone would exceed the $1 million saving from purchasing the building and not renovating.

Purchasing the Reformer building would also result in 18,000 to 20,000 square feet of extra space between the two buildings, space that the town would not be using. Some of that space is proposed to be rented by the Reformer and the Municipal Center currently has a few tenants of its own, but one must assume the town will seek tenants to fill the remaining vacant space.

It is not uncommon to spend up to $50 per square foot to renovate a space for a tenant, which would potentially result in an additional $1 million in latent construction costs if the town fully rents out both buildings.

Unfortunately, a significant amount of vacant office space is already available in town. Since these privately owned buildings need to pay property taxes and cover debt, it does not seem appropriate for the town to be competing for the same tenants.

Regardless of the police project, the Municipal Center is in need of a deep energy retrofit. The police station project should be used to help upgrade the building we already own, but it needs to be done in a way that maintains its historic integrity.

To reduce the renovation cost and to develop a historically sensitive addition, the project should reuse as much of the current building as possible. It should consider using basement space under the new addition, and limit the program to essential elements so that the addition can be as small and historically sensitive as possible.

At some point we will need to renovate the town hall; we should use this project to start that process without acquiring more space to be maintained and repaired.

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