VERNON — As at least 20 people toured the first floor of the historic Governor Hunt House, a few of them, bundled in jackets and hats, huddled around a temporary space heater set up to warm the unheated 18th-century building.
After almost five decades housing the Vermont Yankee's conference rooms and a few offices, Entergy officially donated the Governor Hunt House to the local nonprofit, Friends of Vernon Center, in a brief ceremony, Dec. 16.
Potential plans for the building include office space and a site for community events such as weddings, community functions, and farmers' markets.
The atmosphere in the downstairs quickly warmed as people shared their knowledge of the building's history, their remembrances of working at the former Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and their dreams for a future of town that includes the Governor Hunt House at its center.
Based on comments at the event and brief lunch that followed, the new identity of the Governor Hunt House as a community center symbolizes the community's efforts to build a new post-Vermont Yankee narrative - one that includes the power plant's history but also looks forward.
State Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, congratulated everyone involved in the transfer of the Governor Hunt House and two adjacent vacant lots.
“I think this project is an example of how a small community can come together and make a real difference,” said Coffey. “I'm really excited that this might be a really important step as the community continues to transition - as this nuclear power plant is being decommissioned and disappearing - that there is a new way to re-imagine this site and this place.”
During the ceremony, Entergy Government Affairs Director Joe Lynch said, “Vernon has always been such a great supporter of Entergy, and many of our employees lived in this town, raised their families here and, of course, worked at the site.”
“Vermont Yankee is very, very pleased to turn over the Governor Hunt House to the town and the Friends of Vernon Center,” he continued. “I know you've got some plans in the future, and we're hoping that it gets reused appropriately.”
Friends of Vernon Center President Arthur Miller thanked Lynch.
“We're happy to be getting the house and look forward to having some town activities here, but also to have a center for our town,” he said.
Miller said he grew up in Vernon and noted that the ceremony came with both bitter and sweet feelings.
“We're also recognizing this as a time that Entergy is moving out of town - that this is the last little piece here,” he said. “It's kind of sad for us - [Vermont Yankee has] been great neighbors for 50 years, and I'm kind of curious to see what happens to the property out there next.”
Patty O'Donnell, a former state representative and Selectboard chair, praised Vermont Yankee as a “wonderful neighbor.”
According to O'Donnell, “We are on the rebound, people are working really hard to bring Vernon back - we've been very, very successful in many ways - but old neighbors are hard to lose, and Entergy was an absolutely fantastic neighbor.”
Memories of a landmark
Former plant employee Stephen Skibniowsky grew up in Vernon. He remembered looking at the house, then part of the Williams farm, through school bus windows.
“It didn't look like the sharpest residence in town - but always seemed a mystery,” he said. “And we heard stories about the underground railroad.”
Skibniowsky came to work at the power plant in 1970 and back again in 1972.
“We actually set up the first emergency response center here post-Three Mile Island,” he said. “So I got to know the building really well.”
According to Skibniowsky, he crawled through every nook of the old building from basement to attic. An arched chimney in the cellar became the storage site for radiation-monitoring equipment because the thick bricks shielded the sensors from background radiation.
He predicted that the building will “give Vernon the opportunity to tap into its history, which is quite significant.”
He shared an arrangement of photographs taken in the 1980s during a large renovation.
“This place, you'd never recognize it today from what it looked like back in the late '60s and early '70s,” he said. “It was pretty depressing, but it's come a long way back from what it was.”
“I'd like to thank everyone who did support acquiring this building,” said Skibniowsky. “I think it's going to mean a lot to he history of the town and to future generations of Vernonites.”
Entergy acquired the Governor Hunt House in 2002 when the company purchased VY from the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. The plant ceased generating power in 2014.
In January, Entergy sold the plant to NorthStar Group Services for decommissioning but retained ownership of the Governor Hunt House.
Acquiring the historic building as a future community center is part of the Friends of Vernon Center's larger goal of revitalizing the town and establishing a village center.
The organization was incorporated in 2017 following a series of planning and visioning events organized in the aftermath of Entergy's announcement in 2013 that it would close the plant, explained Vice-President Martin Langeveld.
According to Langeveld, the organization formed around the idea that the town lacks a village center. The town received a state grant to create a conceptual master plan for the area containing the town offices, school, and the Governor Hunt House, he said.
“In the long run, we hope to be working on that but, in the meantime, we're going to tackle this and turn it into a community center,” Langeveld said.
Miller said the organization's immediate plan for the building is to mothball it until spring, when the Friends hope to have a grand opening.
Structurally, the building is in good shape, Miller said. Down the road, the organization will consider repairs to the roof and probably remove a few trees that have grown close to the building.
Langeveld added that installing a heating system is also on the new nonprofit's to-do list. He and the group's secretary, Tom Rappaport, explained that the building's current electric-heating system is no longer practical without a direct connection to its own active power plant.
“We're going to have to raise money for a more efficient heating system using a different fuel,” he said.
The organization will also evaluate what updates the building's entrances or restrooms might need to comply with regulations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Langeveld said the town is still figuring out its new post-VY future. Part of that process includes determining what will be next for the Vermont Yankee site after NorthStar finishes its decommissioning.
In the meantime, he thinks Vernon wants to be both “a nice New England town with a town center where people want to live [and] people want to work,” and a town that “values its agricultural heritage.”
As part of protecting that heritage, the town has put a number of acres of farmland into conservation easements.
A leap of faith
Coffey characterized the Friends of Vernon Center's plans to create a community center as “a leap of faith.”
“Money flows into communities where community leaders take these kinds of actions, and I'm so proud to represent this town in the Legislature,” she said.
“We forget to tell this part of the story about Vermont: that our tight-knit communities in Vermont are so unique,” Coffey added. “It's what a lot of people are looking for - where they can be engaged and they can have an impact - and sometimes I think we forget to tell that part of the story.”
As a legislator, Coffey has focused on building the state's creative and rural economies. She views Entergy's donation of the Governor Hunt House as an economic benefit.
When the plant closed, she said, it left “a hole” in the area's labor force with the loss of approximately 600 jobs.
“To me, what this represents is actually as much about the community as it [is] the economy,” she said. “This house represents what has happened on this site before Vermont Yankee came, and I am just encouraged that the Friends of Vernon Center have taken this on.”
Noting that “it's going to take some time, and it's going to take community buy-in,” Coffey called the project “a really important first step.”
“Small rural communities are having a tough time, but as we know our country stores and our community centers are really important,” she said.