By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — The Amesbury Carriage Alliance’s efforts to build a new carriage museum in the Lower Millyard got a huge boost yesterday after the state announced it had awarded the organization a $20,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to help fund a feasibility study on the project.
The grant will allow the Alliance, which is a joint venture between the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce and the Amesbury Carriage Museum organizations, the means to move forward with its plans to explore a proposed project that would convert a dilapidated old building in the Lower Millyard into a multi-use cultural facility.
Matt Sherrill, the chairman of the Amesbury Carriage Alliance, said he was excited when he heard the news and said that getting the grant funds represented a major step forward toward realizing the organization’s ultimate goal.
“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into that grant application,” Sherrill said. “Now we need to get back together and formulate a path to move forward with.”
If the project were to go ahead as planned, the first floor of the facility would house the Chamber of Commerce offices and a new Amesbury Visitors Center, while the second floor would become home to the Amesbury Carriage Museum. The third floor would be used as artist’s lofts, and the rent brought in from those units would help pay for the building’s expenses.
The plan is for the project to be funded entirely by non-city funds, but before any of that can happen, the Alliance needs to conduct the feasibility study to determine what it will take, how much it would cost and if the project is even feasible at all.
Sherrill said the next step will be to choose who will conduct the study, and he indicated that five or six people have already reached out to him expressing their interest.
“Now we know what kind of money we have, so now we know what kind of study they can do for us,” Sherrill said. “As part of that study we’re going to ask them to put together some kind of path for us to go down as far as what we need to do next as a group in order to ensure success.”
Should the study come back with favorable results, Sherrill said the next step after that would be to bring together a team of local contractors, finance people, architects, engineers and others who have experience doing build-up projects that could help get the project off the ground.
Then, the big challenge would be to raise the money needed to actually rehabilitate the building through state and private funds. Sherrill said it’s too early to tell how much it would cost to do that, but estimated that it would be at least $1.5 million.
Sherrill said that ideally the time frame of the project would follow the city’s plans to redevelop the Lower Millyard and construct the new Heritage Park. Even if the recent setback caused by the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to award Amesbury a $400,000 grant delays the park’s construction, Sherrill said the DPW’s impending move to South Hunt Road would still clear the way for the project to move forward regardless of the park’s status.
Under a best-case scenario, the new carriage museum will be complete by 2016, he said.
The Alliance was among many entities across the state that received a total of $5.2 million in grants; and while the grants must be matched with private or public funds, Sherrill indicated that the Alliance had already raised the funds needed to meet that requirement through private donations and fundraising events over the past few months.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer said he was excited that the Alliance had been awarded the grant, especially after the positive vibes he got from Anita Walker, the Mass. Cultural Council’s executive director, when she visited Amesbury last fall and toured the building herself.
“It’s just another step forward for the whole effort, because the Lower Millyard is not just about what the city is doing, we’re a big player in that, but it’s about what the private sector and the nonprofit sector are doing,” Kezer said. “And this is a step forward for the nonprofit sector part of the Lower Millyard effort.”
Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, first notified Sherrill that the Alliance had been awarded the grant.
“The Carriage Museum will be an anchor destination in the Lower Millyard, and this planning grant will provide the blueprint to make it a success,” Costello said in a statement.