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A compromise over the Mohawk Theater sale puts rift on ice — for now

  • 4 min to read
Rainy Wednesday - 2 (copy)

The North Adams City Council on Tuesday decided that there will be a special council meeting in the next few weeks to listen to a presentation from the developer who bid on the Mohawk Theater downtown, and to obtain community feedback.

NORTH ADAMS — Gail Grandchamp’s voice filled the council chambers.

“Extra extra read all about it,” she chanted. “The North Adams Mohawk Performance Center is special and there’s no doubt about it. That’s why all the people are here.”

In a passionate speech on Tuesday evening, she urged the council to pause the city’s sale of the long-empty Mohawk Theater and get community input.

“Anybody who wants to join in and invest $500; 50 people in this room I bet ya, that’s $25,000 that I am proposing to offer," she said, addressing the room. "Raise your hand if you want to invest.” At least half a dozen hands went up.

Grandchamp was one of many residents who took up nearly every seat in the council chambers to speak about the Mohawk Theater. Some cited objections about the proposed sale price of the theater, and others, concerned about the process, advocated for more community involvement.

The council was set to consider a request from Councilor Keith Bona to possibly revote on a 2019 order that gave the mayor the authority to sell the property. He also sought permission for the council to directly ask the solicitor questions.

After discussion Tuesday evening, the council opted not to take a revote. Instead, members decided to hold a special meeting in the next few weeks to listen to a presentation from the developer who bid on the property, and to obtain community feedback. The council can make a recommendation to the mayor on the proposal, and members said they still could vote to rescind the council's 2019 order after the special meeting if they choose.

“If we don’t like it, the next meeting we rescind it,” Bona said, endorsing the compromise.

Earlier this month, Bernard announced the city would be moving forward with a proposal for the theater from Dowlin Building LLC and Veselko Buntic for a multipurpose event and performance space — the sole plan the city received in response to its most recent request for proposals.

The company bid $21,000 for the property, much less than the assessed value of more than $400,000.

When Bernard told councilors at the Nov. 9 council meeting he planned to negotiate a sale with Dowlin, he said that he consulted with the city's legal counsel, and he doesn't need the council's authority to move the sale forward.

But some councilors expressed frustration that in the past, when bids for properties were less than the assessed value, the council was able to vote on them.

A February 2019 memo from Bernard and his staff included in the meeting agenda materials said if the building’s sale price was lower than the assessed value, it would be subject to council approval.

Bernard said “it was the common understanding.” But according to a recent legal opinion, under the 2019 vote, he does not need council approval to move forward with a bid.

“In my opinion, there is no requirement that further authorization by the City Council is required,” reads a late October email from attorney Lee Smith, the solicitor, to Bernard.

Councilor Marie Harpin took issue with the process.

“Basically what I am saying is the rules have changed … Those rules and information that was provided to me has changed,” she said. “I believe I am entitled to go back and review what the information actually is and make another decision.”

Bona said he believes that the council would have acted differently if it knew the current legal opinion in 2019.

“I truly believe if we were told at that time that we were handing it over to the mayor to sell for whatever price for whatever project to do whatever they wanted that we would not have approved that like that,” he said.

He emphasized that it was not the developer that concerns him, it’s the process.

“Millions have to be put into this building,” he said. “It’s not the price that concerns me as much.”

Councilor Benjamin Lamb agreed.

“That number really shouldn't decide where this thing goes,” he said of the proposed purchase price, noting the city has sold buildings for fractions of their assessed value in the past.

Not all councilors wanted to slow the process. Selling the building means the city will get tax revenue from it again and the marquee will be maintained, noted Councilor Wayne Wilkinson. “I don’t see how the city is hurt,” he said.

Public response

A number of residents spoke at the meeting about the theater's proposed sale.

“I think it sets an extremely dangerous precedent for the mayor to bypass the council for approval when that’s always been the process,” said Ashley Shade, who won a seat on City Council starting next year.

Rep. John Barrett III — whose administration purchased the building in the ‘90s — urged the council to rescind its vote. “I’m just disappointed, very disappointed we are selling ourselves cheap.”

Earlier this month, Bernard accused Barrett of making a “clear, if nonspecific, threat” to him over the phone when the two were speaking about Bernard’s plan for the theater.

Diane Morrissey said she wondered why the city didn’t accept an offer from a previous request for proposals from Yina Moore, of Sincerity Builds LLC, offered $100,000 for the building and proposed turning it into the Mohawk Theater and Performing Arts Center.

“We don’t know why she got declined,” Morrissey said. “Why didn’t we take what she offered?”

A selection committee recommended that Bernard reject that proposal be because, among other reasons, the developer pitched temporarily leasing the building to the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum for several years, and the committee writes that the museum is “a delinquent tenant” and at the time, owed the city’s Redevelopment Authority more than $12,000. 

Plans for the museum are unclear.

The memo also cited the purchase price of $100,000, below the assessed value, as a deterrent.

Mark Moulton spoke up in opposition to the plan, though he did not think the price of the current proposal was important.

“I don’t care if we give it away if the plan is right and the plan is vetted,” he said.

He felt the developer has not made progress developing his other property purchases in the city. “What’s going to change here?”

For several years, Buntic has owned two other large properties downtown — Tower and Porter Block on Eagle Street and the Dowlin Block, 101-107 Main St. He recently told The Eagle he plans to turn one into a hotel and the other into apartments.

The special meeting has not yet been scheduled but will be before Dec. 14 and posted on the city’s calendar.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6272.

Reporter

Greta Jochem, a Report for America Corps member, joined the Eagle in 2021. Previously, she was a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She is also a member of the investigations team.

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