North Adams City Council clears path for Mohawk Theater redevelopment bids

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NORTH ADAMS — Let the bidding begin.

Developers will soon have the opportunity to bid on the historic Mohawk Theater after the City Council voted on Tuesday to allow Mayor Thomas Bernard to issue a request for proposals on the city-owned property.

The council unanimously authorized a disposition order that clears the way for the city to seek out a private buyer for the theater on Tuesday.

But first, the council approved an amendment that tacks on one condition: that any future buyer maintain the "historic integrity" of the theater's iconic Main Street marquee.

Bernard had previously signaled to the council that he would be amenable to such a condition.

Ultimately, the winning bid — and thus the future of the theater — will be decided by the mayor. Per state law, the bid will only require approval by the City Council if the offer comes in below the property's assessed value of $446,400. Thus, adopting the disposition order on Tuesday was the council's opportunity to set conditions on the development of the theater.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's meeting, the council's Community Development Committee reviewed the matter and landed on two simple priorities: preserving the marquee and ensuring the public gets a full review of every proposal.

Councilor Jason LaForest asked for specifics — exactly what would be maintained?

Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who chairs the community development committee that proposed the restriction, noted that the committee kept the language purposely vague. The condition reads that the buyer "shall maintain the historic integrity of the marquee in perpetuity."

"We opted not to get into the weeds that deeply, and really the idea is they would maintain the marquee [in] its historic integrity, as it appears on the building," Lamb said.

Councilor Joshua Moran advised against adopting the marquee restriction, expressing concern that it would limit potential buyers.

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"We're kind of micromanaging this idea of `we want to sell it, but when you purchase it please do things the way we want you to do it,'" said Moran, who noted that the city has invested more than $2 million in the theater and it remains empty.

Councilor Wayne Wilkinson echoed Moran's sentiments, arguing that the marquee is in need of $100,000 of repairs — a cost that could be a burden to a buyer.

"You're asking them 'make sure you throw in an extra $100,000 because we want to fix this up,'" Wilkinson said.

The theater, which opened in 1938, operated as a movie house for decades until it closed for good in the early 1990s and came into city ownership under former Mayor John Barrett III.

Councilor Rebbecca Cohen expressed confidence that the language proposed by the committee was not overly restrictive.

"It seems to be vague enough that it would still entice buyers, but at the same time put a tone on what we expect the buyer to do with something that's very valuable to people in this community," Cohen said.

LaForest supported the amendment, arguing that, if the RFP receives a poor response, the property can always be put back out to bid without the restriction.

Moran, Wilkinson and Council President Keith Bona voted against the amendment requiring the marquee be maintained. All three joined the rest of the council, however, in supporting the full disposition order, which passed unanimously.

Bernard first announced his intentions to seek a private owner for the theater at his State of the City address in January, setting off weeks of debate in the City Council about what the council's role in the bidding process should be and what conditions, if any, should be placed on the sale.

Lamb said Tuesday that, because bids on the property are public record, the council can hold a public meeting to review them before Bernard selects a winner — even if the council does not technically have any authority to vote on the winner.

"It's purely a hearing that we're looking for to be able to provide feedback," Lamb said. "We thought that would be helpful in the grand scheme of making a decision."

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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