Residents Critical Of State Funds For North Adams' Heritage State Park

By Tammy DanielsPrint Story | Email Story

An audience of mostly Heritage State Park tenants sharply questioned the mayor about lease negotiations and a state grant at Monday's Redevelopment Authority meeting.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A nearly $900,000 state grant for Western Gateway Heritage State Park encountered some surprising resistance at Monday's meeting of the Redevelopment Authority.

Mayor Richard Alcombright presented to the board outlines of the MassWorks grant and the expected negotiations with a private developer selected in June to operate the state owned-park.

But several members of the audience questioned the appropriateness and legality of the grant, as well as the negotiations with the developer.

"I don't think the grant should go through," said Tala Neathawk, who operated a quilt shop for 11 years in the park until water getting into the building caused mold problems and forced her close. She compared the grant to paving the streets with gold while the buildings were falling down. "The buildings are so bad ... The taxpayers are putting the money into this, I just don't think it should go through."

Edward Morandi, a member of the North Adams Historical Society that operates a museum at the park, questioned the wisdom of negotiating with a developer  — an arm of the nonprofit Partnership for North Adams  — selected months ago who would now have an advantage because of the state money.

"Would it be beneficial for this committee to go out and get more proposals?" he asked. (The city had done two rounds of requests for proposals garnering only three total.) "If they don't have to come and spend $800,000 from their pocket to fix it [other developers] might want to come back."

Councilor John Barrett III also raised the issue, saying "these people were privy to the grant being sought and does that give them an unfair advantage?"

Barrett and Morandi also questioned the nonprofit trusts, which have some overlap, and the identity of the investors.

The Partnership for North Adams has John DeRosa, Mary Grant and Joseph C. Thompson as principals. The North Adams Development Trust, formerly Berkshire Cultural Development Trust, was incorporated in 2001 by DeRosa and Thompson and Blair Benjamin to promote economic growth in and around Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.. It principals are currently Malcolm Smith, Bruce Grinnell and Duncan Brown.

The members of the nonprofits have raised some eyebrows. DeRosa, for example, is also the city solicitor and Barrett pointed out that Alcombright was on the Partnership's board.

Alcombright called the speculation about the grant and the nonprofits "a conspiracy theory" and said he did not know who the investors were. The city would negotiate with the trust, he said, which would in turn line up investors and aid in the formation of a for-profit company to represent them in the development and management of the park.

Committee member Michael Leary said the board had already authorized the mayor to enter into lease negotiations with the North Adams Development Trust. The committee could call for another RFP, he said, "but we'd like to see what negotiations come in."

The committee had voted in June to authorize negotiations with the trust based on a bid of $750,000 up front for leasing and $1.2 million to $1.5 million in investment.

Alcombright said the grant is to fund infrastructure improvements such as parking, the demolition of the Sons of Italy building, the reconstruction of the pedestrian bridge and landscaping. The buildings, which are in need of repair, would fall to the developer fix, he said, though there may be ways to partner for public or private grants, such as historic or New Market credits.

"The private sector investment will take care of the buildings," said the mayor. "The grant was for the infrastructure it doesn't have anything to do with the buildings."

Barrett said the process needed more transparency, questioning the lack of a public hearing and what appears to be a continuing lack of quorum of the Redevelopment Authority and a failure to update its designations.

The application for the grant included a checked box indicating a public meeting had been held, he pointed out, but he was unaware of any public hearings.

"I don't believe this thing has been vetted out," said Barrett, who also questioned the authority's purchase of the Sons of Italy building. "If we want to do it right, the public should have some input."

According to the MassWorks application, "A public hearing or meeting is not required by the MassWorks Infrastructure Program." However, it does suggest a hearing should be considered "to bring the project to the attention of the direct abutters as well as to the attention of the larger community."

The MassWorks grant was discussed with a number of other grant applications at the Community & Economic Development Advisory Board in October, after the grant's September deadline. The grant was also submitted by the city of North Adams, not the authority.

"Why do grant applications need to be vetted?" said Alcombright. "It's all going to benefit the park and this is a grant that doesn't cost the city anything."

Tags: Heritage State Park,   MassWorks grant,   redevelopment authority,   

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