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Water Mill preservation springs leak

Three years after buying the historic, but bankrupt, Williamsville Water Mill to preserve it, officials say saving it might cost three times as much as first anticipated and that they might have accidentally blocked their best shot at financing.

They might not even have money to make the next payment -- $125,000 due in January.

And, in the meantime, little work has been done to the mill property.

"It's fallen into severe disrepair," said Trustee Brian Geary. "It's very frustrating."

It now appears the cost of saving the old red mill -- a village landmark built in 1811 -- could be as much as $2 million, not the $640,000 originally estimated, Trustee Jeffrey Kingsley said. The village's entire budget is about $5.4 million.

"This village cannot handle a $2 million tax hit," Kingsley said.

A comprehensive plan for the mill site is being carved out by a special committee, created in July when a new board majority came to power. The plan is needed to persuade state officials or others to chip in for the mill, he said.

It will spell out when the mill site would be restored and how it will be used -- issues still unresolved years after the purchase.

Kingsley, a member of the new majority, said the village has no time to waste.

"We're basically starting at Square One," said Kinglsey, a liasion to the Mill Restoration Committee. "Very little had been done."

But Mayor Mary Lowther, an original proponent of the mill purchase, said it is unrealistic to expect such a complex project to have progressed faster than it has.

"I think it is moving along," she said.

Village officials bought the mill -- then the only continuously operating mill in Western New York -- when it went into foreclosure in late 2004. Some board members were fearful developers would try to buy it and demolish it.

They paid $450,000 for it, mostly by borrowing from the village sewer fund surplus. At the time, they banked on getting government or private grants to pay the project's cost and/or turning the site over to a not-for-profit group that would be created to restore and operate it.

So far, though, the plan has not worked.

Attracting private sector interest has been difficult because the village hasn't determined what the mill's future will be.
Handing it off to a nonprofit group is also problematic because such groups rarely can afford to take on debt, Kingsley said. But the village can't gift the site to a nonprofit because it purchased the mill site for fair-market value. Legally, it is required to get the same if it tries to transfer ownership.

Lowther said no one realized that when the mill was purchased. Still, both Lowther and Kingsley said they believe that problem, as well as others tied to the issue, can be worked out.

"It's going to be trickier," Lowther said, "but it's not impossible."

Meanwhile, a crucial $150,000 state grant the board won early on to pay down the mill debt is creating headaches, as well. Accepting the grant gave the state historical agency final say over future plans for the mill site, and that ended up scotching village hopes of selling one building on the site to help pay for the restoration project.

Lowther said she was not worried, though. "The money is coming," she said.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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