Thursday December 27, 2012

LEE -- The Lee Community Development Corp. has returned to its roots -- relying solely on volunteers to promote economic growth in town.

In the wake of the departure six months ago of Richard Vinette -- the CDC’s only paid employee -- the agency’s board of directors assumed most of the former executive director’s duties.

Through five subcommittees, the board has stepped up its involvement toward managing CDC properties, business development, communications, reuse of dormant paper mills and overall day-to-day operations of the nonprofit organization, according to board President David Bruce.

"We outsource what we need from consultants, otherwise we’ve gone back to what the CDC was originally," Bruce said.

"We’ve come full circle as volunteers," added board member Dani Holmes. "But our primary weakness right now is the outreach [the CDC] had with Rich Vinette."

As executive director for 16 years, Vinette helped broker deals for millions in public and private investment in Lee’s economy. He allowed the CDC to help Lee foster downtown revitalization, highlighted by a publicly funded new parking lot and a $3.7 million private rehabilitation of the Baird/Benton block on Main Street, both completed 18 months ago.

Hired in 1996, Vinette also guided the board in developing and marketing a business park and corporate center on Route 102.

Despite a stellar track record, Vinette was let go in June as the board could no longer afford his $70,000 annual salary, according to CDC officials. Vinette’s paychecks were primarily funded by the sale of lots from the CDC’s Quarry Hill Business Park and rental income from businesses at the Lee Corporate Center, once a KB Toys warehouse.

However, the last lot transaction occurred in 2008, forcing the mostly volunteer group to rely on its line of credit to pay some of its expenses. In addition, the net proceeds from renting the corporate center are nearly gone, having once earned the CDC $60,000 each year.

Thanks to $15,000 from Lee taxpayers, the CDC has continued without an executive director. Lee’s Annual Town Meeting last month approved the funding to pay for the 27-year-old agency’s upkeep, marketing the business park and other expenses.

Among the CDC’s priorities entering 2013: Find a buyer for the corporate center and find new uses for three former paper mills.

The CDC, through a subsidiary, recently stepped up its efforts to sell the 116,000 square-foot corporate center with an asking price of $1.5 million.

"The perfect buyer is someone who needs it for manufacturing space," said CDC board member Chauncy Collins. "Right now, it’s primarily office and warehouse space."

The Lee CDC also continues to help market the Eagle, Columbia and Greylock mills once operated by Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc. Schweitzer-Mauduit closed the manufacturing plants in the spring of 2008 that put 170 people out of work.

While the paper maker sold the Eagle Mill to Albany, N.Y.-developers four years ago, their plans for reuse never got past the conceptual stage. Eagle Mill Enterprises is now seeking a buyer for commercial property that dates back to 1806.

"The Eagle Mill has some asbestos issues, but on a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 1, maybe a 2," said John Philpott, who heads up the CDC’s mill reuse subcommittee.

However, the Columbia Mill, built in the mid-1850s, along the Housatonic River, poses a tougher reuse challenge due to the dam holding back potential cancer-causing PCBs, according to Philpott.

He noted the 50-year-old Greylock Mill has the most reuse potential, especially as manufacturing space.

"Ideally, we’d like to see a single entity creating 200 to 300 jobs; realistically it will probably be some different," Philpott said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.