NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council degenerated into heated arguments on Tuesday as Councilor John Barrett III once again took aim at plans to revive Western Gateway Heritage State Park as a commercial center.
A proposal to use an $880,000 MassWorks grant to repair and improve the state park's infrastructure and enter into a lease agreement for $775,000 with a private developer to fix and market the buildings has run into opposition from Barrett and some of the park's nonprofit tenants.
"I see something that failed 30 years ago," said Barrett. "This failed in the past and it failed miserably."
The former mayor also took aim again at the principals behind the non-profits, covering much the same issues he'd raised last month at a meeting of the Redevelopment Authority. Barrett claims "games are being played" by the principals of the nonprofit Partnership for North Adams (City Solicitor John DeRosa, Mayor Richard Alcombright, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Director Joseph Thompson and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Mary Grant) and those involved in the North Adams Development Trust, which submitted the winning lease bid.
"If there's an appearance of a conflict, there's a conflict," he said.
Councilor Keith Bona said many of those involved "behind the scenes" were also involved in the museum and development of the Porches on River Street.
"It wasn't a conflict of interest then, why is it a conflict now?" he asked. Bona said published reports indicated negotiations for The Porches had included the mayor and city employees.
Barrett took umbrage at Bona's remarks and began speaking out of turn. He later stated the reports had come from a "disgruntled landlord" and were proven not true.
But his efforts to address Bona devolved into a match between Barrett and President Michael Bloom during which Bloom repeatedly and loudly gaveled Barrett and told him to be quiet while the councilor kept trying to talk. Councilor Lisa Blackmer called for a recess, which was seconded, but it was apparently not heard by Bloom.
Barrett had requested the presentation to update the council on the park proposal and spent much of the hour pressing the mayor on aspects of the plan and offering up past history to show it wouldn't work.
The park had been taken over by the city after the developer was unable to retain tenants or make its loan payments, he said, claiming his office's intercession had prevented a real estate collapse of Scarafoni Associates, which was involved in the park.
Council President Michael Bloom repeatedly told Councilor John Barrett III to be quiet and wait his turn to speak.
"It was a well conceived plan and it looks nice on paper... It didn't work then it isn't going to work now," said Barrett. Rather, he said, the park had provided space for local nonprofits and been a "cash cow" for the city.
Alcombright said the circumstances had changed greatly from the mid-1980s. With the Department of Conservation and Recreation situating the park as the northern entrance to Mount Greylock, the pedestrian proximity of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the anticipated bike path, he said there were far more opportunities for Heritage Park to thrive.
The city is not in a position, he continued, to invest hundreds of thousands in repairing the buildings or to market the park. The for-profit investors are expected to put more than a $1 million in the development.
"We can take a park that's falling down around itself with few tenants ... and get it out of our hands and lease it to the private sector for $750,000," said the mayor. "If nothing happens, if it all goes south, it reverts to the city in better shape than it was before."
Alcombright said the bonus would be the ability to take the money and leverage it for funding for the Mohawk Theater (an option that Barrett also came out strongly against, including talk of using the adjacent Dowlin Block for classrooms and dormitory space related to the theater.).
Breen expressed concern that DeRosa was both a principal in the partnership and the city solicitor.
The solicitor had reviewed the request for proposals but had stated the city would have to engage another attorney to represent it in any negotiations with the trust.
"It's cut and dried that the solicitor has a conflict of interest," she said, asking for an independent review or an opinion from the attorney general's office. "I think this sounds really great for the city but I'm afraid there's a conflict of interest."
In other business, the council approved a reduction in the city's fiscal 2013 budget to $35,677,853. The reductions had been expected to balance a structural deficit of $650,000. A combination of cuts of $172,309 and $428,662 in reserves were used.