MERIDEN — More than 10 years after buying the Meriden Armory, owner Wayne Barneschi still hopes to rehabilitate the building while running the wildly popular Trail of Terror in Wallingford.
“We’re concentrated on the code issues,” Barneschi said this week. “And we definitely have them. It’s an older building and the codes aren’t the same. We want to improve it without ruining it and interfering with the structural integrity. I kind of gave up on the whole thing a couple of years ago.”
But the city’s Meriden Big program has given Barneschi some hope he can find financial assistance to tackle the many issues at the 25,000-square-foot Armory of Darkness on East Main Street.
Barneschi is on the list of pre-approved applications for the program designed for new businesses, vanilla box improvements for landlords and businesses, and code upgrades. Meriden Big utilized $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds set aside by the city for economic development. A separate $1.5 million pot of ARPA funding, called Meriden Big 2.0, is reserved for businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barneschi, doing business as Scare Crew Productions Inc., has applied for $300,000 in funding. His pre-approval status means the project goes to the Meriden Big concierge who will fine-tune the details in compliance with federal laws and move it to the city’s bidding process. The business is a non-profit that has donated millions to various charities in 25 years.
City Economic Development Director Joseph Feest said the Armory of Darkness was among the first projects that came to mind when they rolled out the Meriden Big program.
“It would be a fantastic thing if we can get that going,” Feest recalled thinking at the time. “Unfortunately, it needs a tremendous amount of Americans with Disabilities Act work. Remember, it was state-owned and hasn’t been touched for years.”
If approved, Barneschi must match 25 percent of the ARPA funds with his own money.
Barneschi has expanded his plans for the project beyond offering an indoor haunting site in Meriden for the fall season. Although the Armory of Darkness will still offer thrills and chills, he also wants to restructure the basement level for escape rooms, and open a theater area for community productions.
The building was used as the set for a Christmas production several years ago that employed local extras, and Barneschi said he gets inundated with calls from film crews to shoot in the building. He said he refuses them until the building is up to code.
Asbestos removal and environmental cleanup at the 25,000-square-foot building was completed in March 2013, and he secured parking agreements with nearby businesses. He has invested a lot into the building with roofs and floors but continues to face challenges, Feest said.
Providing access to the disabled and the steep front steps can be overcome with an alternative access at the rear of the building and elevators.
But there remains the challenges of more bathroom space, a sprinkler system and other code upgrades. He is working with a code expert and has invited city officials to the Ansonia Armory to see an effective rehab.
“It’s a big issue long overdue 10 years ago,” Barneschi said. “I couldn’t do any more. The roof and stairwells were collapsing. I’m trying to do the best I can without changing the structure. Because of the antenna, the roof collapsed. But this is exciting because it’s such a beautiful building. This (funding) kind of gave me a little bit of that spark back that we can utilize the building.”