Bellows Falls health complex eyes major upgrades

Greater Rockingham Area Services gets a $800,000-plus grant to fund a new biomass system for the former hospital

BELLOWS FALLS — Four years after starting her job as Greater Rockingham Area Services (GRAS) administrator, Marty Gallagher is closing in on the estimated $1,870,850 needed to upgrade energy systems at the former Rockingham Memorial Hospital at 1 Hospital Court.

Gallagher says at the start, her work for the nonprofit to secure the needed money through researching and writing grant applications and researching low-interest loans felt like a “baptism by fire.”

But recently she has seen her largest success to date: an $817,908.36 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), a federal/state partnership for economic and community development within the most distressed counties of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.

Many have noticed Gallagher's efforts on behalf of GRAS, including U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, although Gallagher almost missed this accolade.

“I was checking my office messages on Tuesday, Aug. 23,” she says with a smile. “I had a message from Peter Welch, which I thought was just a campaign robo-message. I almost deleted it but let it play out. He was congratulating me on the NBRC award.”

GRAS doesn't actually provide health services, but rather the infrastructure for several health care providers that lease the former hospital campus.

“This funding will go to pay for the actual equipment as opposed to light demolition and construction,” Gallagher says of the NBRC grant. “The equipment is the most expensive part of this project.”

That equipment includes replacing 33- and 58-year-old boilers with a new, energy-efficient biomass boiler, a boiler backup system, and a silo to store the wood chips used as fuel.

The total project costs include project management, engineering, boiler installation, piping installation, demolition of the existing boiler system and piping, a light remodel of the boiler room, remediation of the underground oil tank, and electrical and control work for the boilers.

To date, Gallagher has successfully secured a $72,000 Vermont Capital Investment Program grant and a $60,000 Windham Wood Heat Initiative grant plus $50,000 in Efficiency Vermont incentives.

She is in the process of applying for a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and she plans to apply for a $250,000 USDA loan. The remaining $100,000 needed is anticipated to come, Gallagher says, from a capital fundraising campaign.

“A lot hinges on the Community Development Block Grant,” the administrator says. “That's been a challenge of this project: finding funders with larger grant monies available. It would be very difficult to pay for it in smaller increments.”

Making the building energy efficient is “key,” says Gallagher. That includes getting the building away from being reliant on oil.

“With our old boilers, we can only use number four oil, which is the worst around, hard to find, and not price-competitive,” says Gallagher, noting that on average, the conversion will effect a heating cost savings of about $54,000 per year. If the project is able to be completed as hoped in summer 2023, she expects to see savings starting in winter 2024.

Without the conversion, the worry, says Gallagher, is that while the boilers were well made, they are old. Coupling their age with the high cost of fuel causes a “cascading effect” and could result in a building without heat, rendering it unviable.

The plan will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 507 percent.

Along with the Rockingham Health Center, tenants include Springfield Hospital's Windham Center for Psychiatric Care, which offers an in-patient mental health unit and physical therapy; North Star Health, which provides a walk-in clinic for pediatric and primary care, behavioral health, and a lab service; HCRS (Health Care and Rehabilitation Services), which works with families and those navigating mental health, substance abuse, and developmental disabilities; Front Line Foundations of North America, which works with first responders around post-traumatic stress counseling; the Rockingham Dental Clinic; and Greater Rock Fitness.

Falls Area Community TV (FACT), the region's local access cable studio, also operates from the facility.

Tenants collectively employ about 85 people and serve about 150 clients daily.

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