ST. JOHNSBURY — The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium could catch a break in its recently beleaguered expansion plans.
The 132-year-old St. Johnsbury museum was picked by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., as one of 10 projects statewide to be funded in the upcoming federal budget bill.
If it goes through the budget process untouched, the appropriation would give the museum a $2.47 million grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the planned 6,000-square-foot, three-story upgrade.
Welch, speaking at a press conference outside the museum Wednesday, said the project “has enormous support” among local residents and that he was “delighted” to support it.
Last fall, museum leaders believed workers could break ground this spring. But costs for the project came in $2 million more than anticipated at $4.9 million, a 69% increase.
Construction material prices have seen dramatic rises during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially lumber, and contractors have said they’re busier than usual. Both those factors played a role in the inflated cost, said museum leaders, who pushed work back to 2022.
The museum has raised more than $2 million for the build from donors, foundations and grants and loans, and the proposed federal money would cover the full cost of the project, executive director Adam Kane said Wednesday.
“It is tremendously important to us,” Kane said of the proposal funds. As he spoke at the press conference, he gestured to a cordoned-off area representing where the expansion will be.
Highlighting the museum’s role as an anchor institution in town, Kane said he wants people to visit the facility and then patronize downtown businesses.
“This addition to the museum will help drive that visitation, and that’s going to spill over to all the businesses around us,” he said.
The museum had been considering an expansion of the historic sandstone and limestone building on Main Street for a few years. In the beginning, the goal was to improve access to the museum’s second-floor balcony — which guests can reach only via narrow spiral staircases — and to its basement.
The addition would include an elevator that stops on all three floors of the building and feature new meteorology and astronomy exhibits — hands-on activities in a facility that has historically preached a look-but-don’t-touch philosophy.
Plans also called for the addition to be made entirely of mass timber, a wood building material that’s become increasingly popular in the U.S. and considered better for the environment by advocates than more traditional materials. The addition would be Vermont’s first entirely mass-timber building.
Welch praised the building material’s potential for a more eco-friendly construction process. He also said the project would bring 70 jobs to the area, and speakers expressed optimism that the use of mass timber could spark new life for New England’s forestry industry.
According to a 2017 New England Forestry Foundation report, construction and industry players consider mass timber the most promising option for getting into new construction markets.
The $2.47 million is contingent on a successful federal budget. The federal fiscal year begins in October, but appropriations often aren’t completed by that point.