NORWALK, Conn. – It’s going to be tough for the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion to make it through the summer with a long-awaited construction project bleeding the coffers dry, Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland, in trying to persuade the Board of Estimate and Taxation to fork over $30,000 in additional funding, said the need to become American Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant has put the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in a jam, as the construction of an elevator and new bathrooms will force the museum to be closed during its traditionally lucrative months. The mansion’s bathrooms are in the basement, where elderly people and disabled people cannot get to them.
“It’s a very complex project,” Westmoreland said. “Because the mansion has national landmark status it’s highly regulated. The state historic preservation office oversees any changes that we make. We had to hire an architect to do a $300,000 master plan for the building and all the work before they would approve anything. So it’s taken us that long to get here. We have a lot of grant funding lined up to do this project, but unfortunately the way the timing has worked out, even though we’ve been trying to get this done over the winter period, the only way we can get this done is to start the work in the spring, and it’s going to happen over the summer. If we delay the work to next winter, we would lose $179,000 in grant funds that we have from the state that have to be spent by Jan. 15, 2015.”
Lockwood Mansion Board of Directors Chairwoman Patsy Brescia seconded all of this.
“We can’t raise the money this year because we can’t have the programs,” she said. “This was a surprise to all of us.”
Westmoreland was seeking $75,000 in grants for the museum; Finance Director Thomas Hamilton reduced that to $45,000 in his recommended 2014-15 operating budget.
The BET has not budged off of that.
Brescia said the museum is losing $180,000 of income because of the project, and the $30,000 cut by the BET would only be a partial makeup. Over the past 10 years, the museum has raised $1.4 million and put much of it back into the mansion, she said. The board has $350,000 that it has raised going into the project, she said. The city is contributing $400,000, she said.
Bresica said that, once the work is done, there will probably be an influx of tourists – next summer.
Westmoreland said part of the museum’s revenues stemmed from rentals of the facilities, but the bathrooms will be closed during the construction as there will be no water in the building.
BET member Erik Anderson suggested that maybe a loan was in order, similar to the loan given to the Oak Hills Park Authority.
Brescia said it’s difficult to get funders to pay a debt. A loan would be a last resort, she said, but the board is open to it.
“If there is any money in this year’s budget, that would really help us,” she said. She highlighted the importance of Norwalk’s museums by mentioning a December Boston Globe article with the headline, “Norwalk, Conn., is good as gold.”
She said she remembered when Norwalk was called “the doughnut hole.”
“(Now) we are the jelly in that doughnut,” she said.
One of the options she had explored was a loan from the Redevelopment Agency, she said, but that wasn’t possible.
Anderson pressed that the museum might be able to repay a loan from the city without asking funders to chip in.
“I think this really bodes well for the historical value of Norwalk and really could be another booming year for you guys,” he said.
BET Chairman Jim Clark agreed the mansion is a growing tourist attraction.
“Norwalk’s history is an important part of our identity here. It’s also becoming something that gives us notoriety,” he said.
But in Wednesday’s follow-up BET meeting, the additional funds were not added.
“They do have a problem that they are having to deal with, but I am not sure it’s our problem,” Hamilton said.
“They are under pressure that they are not usually under,” Clark said.
It was agreed that there is a chance that the money will be put in the budget later.
“It’s one of our jewels,” Clark said. “It’s important to take care of that.”
A public hearing on Norwalk’s proposed operating budget will be held at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday in Concert Hall.