Bakersfield officials are moving forward with plans to retrofit a historic schoolhouse into as many as 34 units of housing — some or all of which could be reserved for seniors and help meet a growing need for housing among the area’s aging population.
The Brigham Academy building, which opened in 1878, has sat vacant off Route 108 since the town’s public middle school moved out in 1986.
It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, with the campus dubbed at the time “unquestionably the most prominent site in town.”
Since then, Bakersfield has sought a new use for the building — and officials may now finally have one, said Kathy Lavoie, who manages special projects for economic recovery at the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and is working on the project.
The town received a $45,000 state planning grant this year, which can be used to hold public meetings about the project and conduct engineering studies.
Lavoie said the project also has interest from a developer.
“It is a gorgeous, gorgeous facility,” she said. “But there’s a whole lot of planning work that needs to be done.”
When Brigham Academy opened in the 19th century, it was among the largest school buildings in the state. The institution served only high school students, which was unique at a time when most schools had many grades in a single classroom.
The school’s founder and namesake, Peter Bent Brigham, also donated the money to found what is known today as Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Bakersfield officials have said they want to leave the building’s exterior effectively unchanged but completely remodel the interior. Along with housing, the project also could include a community space, Lavoie said.
Planners need to study exactly how many new units Bakersfield can support, Lavoie said, but she often hears that seniors in town move closer to larger communities — such as St. Albans City — because housing for them isn’t available nearby.
Bakersfield has about 1,500 residents.
Catherine Dimitruk, executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, said there is a need for all types of housing in Franklin County, including developments specifically for the area’s senior population.
Almost a third of Franklin County residents will be age 65 or older by 2025, she said. And across northwest Vermont, the percentage of the population over 65 has been increasing over the past decade, according to planning commission data.
Seniors in Franklin County tend to have more stable, more affordable and higher-quality housing than younger people, Dimiturk said, but that doesn’t mean this population can be overlooked when planning new housing projects.
The Other Paper reported last year that Cathedral Square, a senior housing developer with more than 25 properties in and around Burlington, had prospective tenants on waitlists that were as long as three to five years.
“There’s a need, and that need is only growing,” Dimiturk said.
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