North Adams counsel nixes City Council's plan to have say on Mohawk Theater request for proposals

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NORTH ADAMS — The City Council thought it had reached a compromise in how to seek a buyer for the historic Mohawk Theater.

Then the city's lawyer weighed in.

In a letter Tuesday, the city's attorney advised against a plan to have the mayor solicit bids on the city-owned theater before the City Council authorizes a disposition order allowing him to sign a purchase and sale agreement.

The plan was a reversal of the process typically used by the city in selling property, and an effort to assuage the concerns of city councilors as the city looks to sell what is perhaps its most culturally significant asset.

"Prior to issuing [a request for proposals] for the sale of the Mohawk Theater Property, [Massachusetts General Law] requires the City first determine the Property is surplus and available for disposition, define any restrictions it wishes to put on the buyer's use of the property, and determine the value of the property," wrote Stephen Marsters Jr., an attorney with KP Law.

That opinion puts the council back where it was several weeks ago, considering ways to adopt a disposition order with certain restrictions on future development of the theater.

To date, councilors have expressed a desire to see the theater's Main Street marquee preserved, while others want assurances that if a private development effort fails, the theater would return to the city's hands.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the council kicked the issue back to its Community Development Committee to propose a list of conditions before the council greenlights the disposition order.

"This now prevents us from having checks and balances in the middle [of the process]" Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who chairs the committee, said of the counsel's advice.

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Although efforts to revitalize the theater stretch back decades, it was once again thrust into the center of debate when Mayor Thomas Bernard announced in his January State of the City address plans to put it out to bid.

The iconic theater opened as a movie house in 1938, but struggled for decades before eventually sputtering to a close in the early 1990s.

In the proposal outlined by Bernard, the City Council would authorize him to dispose of the property. Then, the mayor would issue a request for proposals and work with his administration to select a winning bidder.

The purchase of the theater, and whatever the proposed redevelopment plan would be, would not have required City Council approval unless the offer was at or below the assessed value of $446,400, per state regulations.

Bernard's proposed process, which is the same as when the city offloaded properties like the former Department of Public Works building on Ashland Street, left city councilors with reservations.

So, before signing off on Bernard's plan, councilors explored ways that they could set conditions or restrictions on the historic theater's redevelopment.

In a meeting of the Community Development Committee, former mayor and current state Rep. John Barrett III offered an alternative plan to which the council agreed: have Bernard issue a request for proposals first and announce the winning bidder before the council takes a vote.

Before agreeing to this reversed process, Bernard sought legal counsel.

On Tuesday, the plan fizzled. Now, the Community Development Committee will schedule a meeting before the matter returns to the full council April 23.

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


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