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Reist Mill at Amherst State Park

Mill fire draws harsh criticism of Town Board

Buffalo News July 23, 2008  by Samantha Maziarz Christmann

    Activists who implored the Amherst Town Board to take better care of its historic structures were fuming after a fire destroyed the landmark-protected Reist mill early Monday morning.

    Mary Shapiro, a member of the Amherst Historic Preservation Commission, spoke during Monday's Town Board meeting and called the fire "a horrific loss" to the area. She expressed outrage at the town's failure to properly secure and maintain the historic mill.

    "It wasn't even yours. You were just entrusted with its care," Shapiro said.

    The town was charged with the maintenance of the state-owned mill, located in Amherst State Park. After the Williamsville Water Mill on East Spring Street, it is the second-oldest mill in Williamsville. But, as time went by, neglect revealed the 187-year- old former flour mill was not a priority for the town -- or its budget, critics said.

    In May, the town budgeted $160,000 to be matched by a state rehabilitation grant toward the property's renovation and stabilization.

    But before that money could be used, the town needed direction as to how it would be best spent, said Council Member Shelly Schratz. The board was in the process of applying for a $20,000 grant, devoting $8,000 of its own budget, to study the structure and create a renovation plan that would take into account the requirements of its historic status.

    "We finally took a step in the right direction because for so long it had fallen on deaf ears. And then [the fire] happened," Schratz said, adding that years of inattention made the unoccupied structure vulnerable. "The town dropped the ball. No one can say we didn't."

    Critics agreed that, despite repeated urgings, maintenance money wasn't coming fast enough.

    According to Lois Shriver of the Amherst Conservation Advisory Council, the mill remained dry, weathered and in need of repairs such as a new roof. Despite millions of dollars spent to purchase local parks and historic buildings, the assets were wasted without money to maintain them, she said in an interview.

    "This building was just left to rot, and now it's gone," Shriver said during Monday's meeting.

    Shriver and Schratz said they hope the Reist mill fire will serve as a wake-up call, bringing attention to other similarly neglected, government-owned buildings, such as the Mennonite Meeting House on Main Street and North Forest Road.

    Still, Town Supervisor Satish Mohan, while saddened by the loss of the mill, said embarking on its rehabilitation sooner probably would not have made a difference. Though no official suspected cause of the fire has been reported, investigators said they had not ruled out arson.

    "Even if we had spent $200 million, I don't think there is anything we could have done to stop it," he said. "If someone wants to sabotage public buildings, there is nothing we can do to stop them."

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