Veso Buntic of New York says he is ready to move forward with two projects he's had for several years.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The proposed buyer of the Mohawk Theater was grilled by councilors and community members on Wednesday night.
Veselko Buntic of Long Island City, N.Y., submitted a bid of $21,000 to purchase the long-vacant theater and turn into an events space in tandem with the transformation of the Dowlin Block as a hotel.
The sentiment on the sale had been largely negative, particularly on social media. And some of the questions posed to Buntic in City Council Chambers were more statements than question.
But after an hour and a half of explaining himself, what had been a largely unsympathetic crowd seemed to be softening.
"He seems accommodating to every one of our concerns," said resident Trevor Gilman. "There's seems to be a lot of agreement on how this can all be done properly with everybody made happy."
Gail Grandchamp, who had boxed at what had been the Mohawk Performing Arts Theater, wanted Buntic to understand the city's feelings about 83-year-old building.
"That means so much to me, I made history there. So it really means a lot to me. And everybody here. That's why we're here," said she told him. "This is our heart and soul."
Buntic said he appreciated the fact the old moviehouse was the last left on Main Street and was willing to sit down and talk about his plans to renovate the historic landmark.
"I know this is very valuable to you but we're going to make it in the best possible condition," he said.
Councilors and community members expressed their concerns about Buntic's experience, his plans, his finances, and his ability to follow-through, based on his other North Adams holdings.
Buntic said he's been coming to North Adams about once a month for a few years and was considering moving here. He heard about the request for proposals for the theater from acquaintance and said he only had eight or 10 days to pull a bid together.
For his part, he said has more than 35 years in development in New York City, including historic buildings and event spaces. He owns the Anable Basin Sailing Bar & Grill in Long Island City and restored a falling down wharf building into an events center.
In response to questions, he said he's already moving ahead with plans at both the Dowlin Block and the Porter Block on Eagle Street.
Critics had pointed to the poor condition of both buildings and the lack of any significant progress on them in the last four or five years. Buntic said it was a matter of the pandemic, building project in New York City and, more particularly, the partnerships he'd been involved with those structures. He was in group of four on the Dowlin Block and another buyer in the Porter Block. He'd bought both out recently.
"I feel liberated because now I can do things," said Buntic, adding, "since I have 37 years in New York, I know what it takes to get things done. If I had been by myself, it would have two years ago been done."
He said it might not look it but about $120,000 to $140,000 has been invested in the Porter Block in stabilization, demolition and asbestos removal. Plans to put apartments in the building will be before the Planning Board this month.
About 60 containers of furniture and debris had been taken out of the Dowlin Block and an architect is drawing up plans now, he said.
He estimated four years and $4 million for the Dowlin/Mohawk complex. He said an assessment of the theater would start immediately upon taking control of the theater and that all of the Phase I funding that will include the restoration of the marquee, the roof, immediate repairs, and reopening of the lefthand space at the Mohawk that had been envisioned as the ticket booth.
Phase 2 that will include the hotel will be funded through already secured investors and a line of credit. He offered to provide the city with proof of that backing before the purchase. Financing for the Porter Block is already in place.
The major issue at the empty theater is the canted floor. Buntic said it has to be leveled to make the space usable but how that will happen is up to an engineer.
"I have to make the place valuable financially and keep the integrity, the design and and everything, the floor needs to be leveled so they can be used for different purposes, which means from conferences to different meetings to shows, music whatever," he said. "As of now, this theater is very limited in what you can do."
He said he was interested in the arts and had been involved with galleries, and his event space, Sound River Studio, hosts a number of nonprofit events. But, Buntic, pointed out, art was nice but the building had to also bring in revenue.
But a sticking point for some was the speed at which they felt the sale was being made, whether the council should be involved and whether it should be done at the tail end of a departing administration.
"I can't recall my years on council that something substantial like this has come in at a transferring of an administration," Councilor Keith Bona said. "So that is something that I will say that definitely weighs on me with with my decision."
Bona had forced the issue last week
after Mayor Thomas Bernard told the City Council he did not need its authority to determine the sale. The compromise was Wednesday's special meeting where Buntic laid out is proposal and answered questions. A vote is expected at next week's regular meeting thought it's not clear if that vote will be to approve or to rescind the theater's designation as surplus property so new conditions — particularly council approval — can imposed.
"For some it feels rushed," Bona continued to Buntic. "I'm not saying how the vote will go, but if it didn't happen this round is to say that, you would still be interested?"
Buntic said he'd had a proposal rejected once before. He and a group of investors had bid a half-million for the Windsor Mill but had been passed over for a lower bid that later fell through. He added he didn't look forward to the idea of being grilled again.
"The theater is sitting there for 30-something years and in three years you're going to have a collapsed roof," Buntic said, and pointed out the collapse at the Hoosic mill and the loss of St. Francis. "I don't want to see that. Now is the time to do something."