Bill Donovan: Missed chances with two North Adams churches
NORTH ADAMS >> The closing of St. Francis Parish by the Springfield Diocese was inevitable, the demolition of the church was not. The dismantling of this iconic church steeple should never have happened.
For more than six years, the parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Church were misled into thinking that the mayor and other city officials would honor their word. Mayor Alcombright and City Solicitor John DeRosa, who also serves as the head of the Partnership for North Adams, made promises which they simply couldn't keep. When they couldn't come up with the money to acquire the St. Francis property they found ways to prevent and delay the Diocese of Springfield from selling it. The Partnership and Mayor simply were not interested in saving the church. If they were they would have found a way to save it.
As has been too common with the Partnership, it can never seem to walk the talk when it comes to North Adams. The amount of money the group spent on studies, salaries and banners would have been more than enough to have purchased the St. Francis property. If it believes that there is something better than a CVS for the church property then it should buy it and develop it.
Mayor Alcombright also had the opportunity to develop the city-owned Notre Dame Church property but has chosen not to. The Barrett administration and City Council purchased the property in 2007 to save Notre Dame Church as well as the other two buildings on that site. The former mayor clearly felt this property had great potential.
Its location is close to downtown and just a five-minute walk to Mass MoCA. With condominiums selling in excess of $250,000 on Main Street and rental demand high it would be a great boost to the downtown. As a bonus it would save the church steeple. It would be easier for the city to select the best developer to protect the Monument Square Historic District.
MCLA purchased the Notre Dame rectory for its development and alumni office. The city also received a $150,000 Historic Preservation Grant from the Mass Historical Commission to make repairs to the church, prevent any damage and secure the building from any deterioration until a developer was found. The former elementary school was found to be structurally sound and would be ideal for either condominiums or for rentals.
It was expected that when Alcombright assumed office in January of 2010 he would continue with this plan. In 2007, then-City Councilor Alcombright said in support of the Notre Dame purchase: "We need some proactive solutions, it is not the city's position to bail out the Catholic Church. It is the city's position to be concerned with property use and historic preservation." Since 2010 the mayor has done nothing to market or develop this property.
Now this iconic church structure is starting to show signs of neglect as bricks are starting to fall from the building. Where was the Partnership for North Adams? Instead of balancing the city's needs and not forgetting the old saying, "connecting the past with the future," the mayor and city solicitor have taken North Adams down the wrong road with two missed opportunities, development of the Notre Dame and St. Francis properties.
The demolition of St. Francis Church lies at the doorstep of Mayor Alcombright and the Partnership for their failure to not only execute their several options on the property, but also their lack of any alternative proposal. In February of 2010 church officials put the St. Francis property on the market. They received two proposals, one from a developer who wanted to build a CVS store and one from a group who wanted to use the church for a religious museum. As a compromise the CVS developer agreed to donate the church to the museum group.
Fr. William Cyr, pastor of St. Francis, arranged a meeting with the mayor to see if the museum operators could use the municipal lot for parking if the deal was to happen. At that meeting church officials were surprised when the mayor and other city officials asked church representatives if they would consider an offer from another group. The mayor said the offer would be close to what CVS was offering and that the group would close within 90 days.
Church officials agreed to accept the offer and a 90-day option was signed, with the church receiving $5,000 from the group. The deal wasn't completed in 90 days and over the next 24 months, church officials were told not to worry by the mayor as they were close to a deal. Seems like those are the same words the mayor used when asked when the Heritage Park deal was going to be signed.
No financial deal
Finally, in 2012, church officials informed the city that they would no longer honor the option agreement. When church officials received a different offer, they notified the mayor as a courtesy. Instead of securing financing, the mayor and the solicitor rushed through a "Demolition Ordinance" which would stop the demolition of any building 35 years or older until it was approved by the Historic Commission. The extra 30-60 days the mayor needed to put a financial deal together didn't matter. It never happened.
In 2013 church officials gave it one final try with a proposal allowing CVS to build a smaller store, while contributing $200,000 to save part of St. Francis. As Fr. Cyr told parishioners in a 2013 letter, it wasn't a perfect deal for either side but it would save a section of the church. Three days after agreeing to the compromise the mayor informed Fr. Cyr that he had changed his mind.
Mark DuPont, a spokesman for the Springfield Diocese, said in an interview with Fr. Bill Pomerleau: "All I can say is that we are in negotiations with an interested party, and that the city had multiple opportunities to be a constructive part of this process going back five years and they never could bring a viable plan to fruition. The parish community needs to plan for its future without government interference."
I have a feeling that the rest of this story is yet to be told.
Bill Donovan is an occasional Eagle contributor.
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