North Adams City Council OKs sale of two of three properties

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NORTH ADAMS — The city has unburdened itself of two fraught properties, but the proposed sale of a third has hit a snag.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the sale of the historic Johnson School building at 21 Williams St. and a 218-acre parcel of forestland adjacent to Mountain Meadow Preserve in Pownal, Vt.

The sale of the former Sullivan School at 151 Kemp Ave., however, was sent back to the Finance Committee amid concerns about the amounts offered by two competing bidders — both of which were significantly below the assessed value, among other issues.

Mayor Thomas Bernard had recommended to the City Council the transactions of all three properties, which have presented management challenges — and significant financial burden — for the city.

Watershed parcel

The Vermont forestland parcel near the Williamstown border is part of the city's Broad Brook watershed, which was once tapped as a primary source for drinking water. The city has been soliciting bids for the parcel since 2017 after then-Mayor Richard Alcombright expressed to the City Council his desire for the land to be put under environmental protection.

The parcels are near the Appalachian Trail, which is located to the east, and Green Mountain National Forest land. The city, in fact, sold a total of 3,420 acres in the area to the national forest in 2006 and 2007, according to Pownal real estate records.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bernard as well as other councilors endorsed a $175,000 purchasing proposal put forth by the Massachusetts Land Conservation Trust in Boston, an affiliate of The Trustees of Reservations, which manages and provides environmental stewardship for more than a hundred properties across the commonwealth. While the lone bid in the latest request for proposals came in well below the property's assessed value of $378,300, Councilor Wayne Wilkinson said that for a parcel that's "not buildable" and "has terrible topography," getting $800 an acre is "pretty good" for the city.

Other councilors offered similar remarks regarding the conservation trust's long-term preservation plan for the property and the fact that it will help extend the Trustees' adjacent Mountain Meadow Preserve for environmental protection and public recreation.

Hoosic River Watershed Association President Andrew Kawczak, a city resident, also publicly endorsed the sale, citing that "the value is open space and open space management" through the deal.

Johnson School

Council members also gave a ringing endorsement and approval of the sale of the Johnson School to local developer David Moresi on behalf of Moresi Commercial Investments LLC. The investment group plans to fund the development of what's being dubbed as the Amity Square Apartments.

The project aims to provide at least 20 "high-end," two-bedroom units by modernizing the building's interior, while preserving and restoring its brick and stone exterior. Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the proposal states that the developer will hold a neighborhood information session as well as follow Planning Board protocols before the anticipated construction date of Sept. 1, 2020.

Bernard characterized the project as supporting "a need that will be welcomed by the neighborhood" by returning its "residential character."

Several council members praised Moresi's track record, which includes the recent restoration and multi-use development of the Norad Mill.

"We know he can get something done," said Councilor Rebecca Cohen.

The building is currently occupied by a branch of Berkshire County Head Start, which will be relocated.

Wilkinson said that Head Start is leaving because "the building is in deplorable condition" and the city has not made the necessary and costly repairs. He indicated again, that while the lone bid of $225,000 is well under the assessed property value of $914,300, the city will save money in the long run by not having to make the necessary repairs and maintain the aging structure — over a century old — and land.

Sullivan School

The public bidding project yielded two proposals for the purchase and development of the former Sullivan School.

The first, recommended for approval by the mayor, was for the newly incorporated Berkshire Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center, which is seeking space.

The proposal, submitted by Michael W. Therrien and Brad Dilger, president and vice president, respectively, of the center, set the purchase price at one dollar. It outlines a multi-phase plan including $14 million worth of investment in capital improvements and equipment installation.

The second bid of $50,000 came in from the Barbara and Eric Rudd Foundation of North Adams for a proposed North Adams Art Factory project to create more than 30 affordable artist studios.

Both proposals came in well below the $2.1 million assessed value of the property.

In his recommendation to the council, Bernard said: "Although each [bid] addresses an identified need in the community, the BAMTEC proposal "to introduce, train, and further the skills of the local workforce that are needed for advanced manufacturing, as well as a hub for creativity among entrepreneurs, visual and performing artists, and established local businesses, responds to a critical workforce development priority in our region, and will position North Adams as a center of excellence in retaining current population, attracting new talent, and fostering a creative economy."

Prior to discussion on the matter, council President Keith Bona and Vice President Benjamin Lamb temporarily stepped down from their seats because of their personal economic development interests in the project. Cohen was subsequently nominated and served as interim council president presiding over the matter.

Both Wilkinson and Councilor Eric Buddington said they felt uninformed about the details of the proposals, and Councilor Jason LaForest initially made a motion to table the discussion to the council's Nov. 26 meeting due to a lack of a voting quorum.

In addition to Bona and Lamb recusing themselves, councilors Marie Harpin and Paul Hopkins were absent from Tuesday's meeting.

"Obviously, when we get to vote on this, I believe it will be controversial," Wilkinson said, noting the significant gap between proposed bids and the property value.

Several councilors said there should also be public discussion on the matter. With that, Wilkinson made a motion, which was approved, to bring the discussion before the city's Finance Committee on Nov. 26.


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