After more than 30 minutes of debate, Dedham Town Meeting members voted by voice vote to give authority to the Board of Selectmen to enter into a lease agreement for the former Avery Elementary School.
Selectmen now will look to draft a request for proposal, likely for an arts and community center. The non-profit group Mother Brook Arts and Community Center is the only entity to show interest.
Proponents of the article, seen by some Town Meeting members as a referendum on an arts center, said it filled a desire in the town, worked to revitalize East Dedham and would re-occupy the vacant school building quicker than any other project.
"This is a great position to be in because this body, a few years ago, voted to believe and reinvest in the East Dedham community, to build a brand new school that is a state-of-the-art facility," selectman Jim MacDonald told members. "To do nothing with this article, to indefinitely postpone, will accomplish nothing other than to create another vacant building in our town, which we don’t need."
Members of the Avery Re-Use Committee, which spent the better part of 2011 holding public meetings to find a future use for the school, defended the open process and described what they said was a lengthy and exhaustive path to reach their final recommendation.
"We went to every department in the town to interest them to take over this school," said Bill Podolski, a member of the committee. "We didn't get one shred of light out of any of them."
Town Meeting members voted against an amendment that would've tied the selectmen to only signing a 3-year lease for the building, with members saying it wouldn't allow for an entity to properly renovate the building and could make it difficult for the town to find a suitor to sign such a lease.
Opponents of giving selectmen the authority to enter into a lease agreement, said that they would've liked to see the town fully survey the land to see if another use - police station or senior center - could be built.
"I suggest to you that the right questions weren't asked," said Town Meeting member Andrew Lawlor. "[The Re-Use Committee wasn't] provided with the funding to hire an architectural and engineering firm to provide that hardcore data that you would need to evaluate the feasibility of the Avery School for our two current public infrastructure needs."
While selectmen draft the proposal, wait for responses and sign the lease, the town now will be on the hook for paying "minimal" utility costs, Town Administrator William Keegan said.
Keegan added that any unforeseen accident that damages the building could be paid for through other accounts, and the town doesn't need money set aside for the building heading into Fiscal Year 2013.
In addition to giving selectmen authority to negotiate a lease, the article also transferred the building from the schools to the town.
Supporters of the Mother Brook group taking over have said they could be ready to move in by September.
An arts center, supporters said, will greatly benefit the East Dedham area.
"There will be a revitilization of small business throughout the Mother Brook area," said Town Meeting member Shaw McDermott. "You can predict that this is actually going to be an excellent thing to generate higher revenue for the town in various forms."