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Wallingford woman wants to bring Odd Fellows building back to life

2018-09-21

By Keith Whitcomb Jr. as seen in the Rutland Herald: https://www.rutlandherald.com/news/local/wallingford-woman-wants-to-brin...

WALLINGFORD — A local woman wants to return the historic Odd Fellows building to its former glory.

The three-story, 13,400-square-foot building sits at Wallingford’s four corners at 15 South Main St. It’s been the home of Sal’s Italian restaurant for the past 16 years and was bought in May by Michelle Kenny.

Kenny grew up in Rutland Town and has lived in Wallingford for several years. She’s part of the Rutland law firm Kelly & Gatos and specializes in family law. She also sits on Wallingford’s recreation and economic committees.

The Odd Fellows building, named for the Odd Fellows Club that once owned and used it, was built sometime in the 1820s, according to Kenny. In 1870, the Odd Fellows expanded it to its current footprint, adding a second and third floor. In the 1980s, it was bought by Jamie and Connie Edmunds, who hoped to revitalize it. Kenny said she purchased it from the Edmunds for $150,000.

“When I first met Connie and Jamie, I could tell they had a real love and passion for this building, and when they purchased it back in the ‘80s they really had a lot of great intentions for what they were going to accomplish here,” Kenny said.

She was out early one morning last October walking her dog when the idea to buy the building suddenly occurred to her.

“For some reason the ‘for sale’ sign really caught me,” she said. “I thought, for the first time, if I don’t do something with this building, I don’t know that anyone will. And if not me, then who? I decided very quickly that I needed to resurrect this building for my community; it was something that just took me over and I realized I just needed to do it, crazy as it sounds.”

It will take a lot of money to turn the Odd Fellows — or “The Block” as Kenny is calling it — into the hub of economic and social activity Kenny envisions. For the immediate future, she’d like to get a coffee shop/bakery up and running there.

There are two support beams in the basement that need shoring up before anything can happen, she said. The engineering and architectural reports she’s commissioned say this can be done, but it’ll cost about $50,000. She also knows that opening up the second and third floors will require adding an elevator and sprinkler system — that’s another $150,000, she said. All told, a full rehabilitation could cost anywhere between $1.4 and $1.7 million.

“I’m a hardworking gal, but that money’s not available to me,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that once the project begins it will take on a life of its own.”

Kenny said she’s been busy researching all the tax credit and grant programs available to her, and the town has been supportive of her efforts.

At Monday’s Select Board meeting, Kenny asked for help applying for a municipal planning grant for about $25,000. Such grants are available to towns from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. The board agreed to apply.

“We’re so excited someone has bought it who has the energy to rehab it,” said Select Board Chairman Bill Brooks on Friday. “Michelle is really a go-getter in looking for grant money.”

“I’m hoping that’s going to give me enough to begin the project,” she said. She’s also been working with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, a nonprofit tasked with preserving historic buildings across the state, as well as the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development recently held community forums in Wallingford. The forums, which have been held in communities across the state, get residents together to identify ways to bring their towns back to life. Residents attending the Wallingford forums noted the Odd Fellows building as one they wanted to see revitalized, Kenny said.

If all of Kenny’s dreams come true, the building will host not only a coffee shop and bakery, but also some kind of wellness center, be it a yoga studio or some sort of natural health practitioner. That would be on the second floor, perhaps, she said. The third floor has potential as well.

“The third story is actually what gave me chills and the reason I knew I had to buy this building,” she said. “The third story was a ballroom, like a mini-Broadway stage.”

Prior to Kenny’s purchase, the second and third floors were cleaned out, having hosted a great deal of old items, some of them quite old if the American flag bearing 48 stars left lying between the wall studs is any indication.

Kenny said there are no serious environmental concerns with the rehab, and besides the basement support beams the building’s frame is in good condition. Getting it back into shape will be expensive and exhausting, but is by no means impossible, she said.

“We’re looking forward to little changes around here with somebody new owning it and taking some pride in the building and rehabbing it,” said Rachel Hilske, an employee at Sal’s. “It’s going to be daunting, but I’m excited for her.”

Hilske has worked at Sal’s for six years. The business is owned by Nick Ronfeld and Jerry Kyhill. Hilske enjoys telling customers about the building’s history. Historic items from the building’s upper floors adorn the walls of the restaurant — among them is the Odd Fellows Club’s insignia, a floating eye above a skull and crossbones.

“I’m excited. Michelle has some great, visionary ideas for the upper floors and I’m just hoping she can get things done around here,” Hilske said.