Apr 092014

Fire Station's next life: Bike shop, food store, restaurant, home, or none of the above?Art Campbell | The Groton Line

Fire Station’s next life: Bike shop, food store, restaurant, home, or none of the above?

Groton may be on the edge of selling one, two, or three town-owned buildings, the soon-to-be-replaced Center Fire Station on Station Avenue, the Prescott School building on Main Street, and Squannacook Hall on West Main Street in West Groton. Or it may not.

The town may also be on the edge of changing the way it tries to sell surplus real estate, and that could have an impact on those three pending deals. Or it may not.

That much was clear at Monday’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting. Confused yet?

The BoS has been struggling to convert unneeded town properties to private ownership for years. Selling the properties would provide a one-time cash infusion to the town, and private ownership would mean that the properties would generate new tax revenues.

Town meeting approval is required to sell town-owned real estate, so the selectmen reviewed several articles proposed for the April 28 Spring Town Meeting warrant that would let them move forward with three pending deals:

  • Center Fire Station, which will become surplus when the town’s new center fire station opens this spring. The town has gone through two Request For Proposal (RFP) cycles; the first yielded one $1,000 offer and was rejected, the second yielded five proposals in a range from $5,000 to $100,000.
  • Prescott School building, now leased by the Groton-Dunstable School District for administrative offices. The lease is up next year, and the district school committee is discussing whether to vacate the property early as a cost-savings move. After he received an inquiry from Groton architect Gregory Yanchenko, Town Manager Mark Haddad asked the BoS to issue another in a series of RFPs for the school building. The single response to the RFP is a proposal by Yanchenko to buy the building for $35,000, make renovations to convert the building to professional offices and business space (costing an estimated $1.7M over a period of years), provide continued public access for community events, and public parking.
  • Squannacook Hall in West Groton, which could become a four unit apartment building developed by Halsey Platt of Platt Builders, if the town provides a new septic system. The proposal failed to attract the required 2/3 majority at the 2013 Fall Town Meeting, has been tweaked slightly, and is being considered a second time.

Typically, endorsement of this type of article is not controversial. When discussion of the old Center Fire Station article came up, Haddad was authorized to begin negotiating with Dan McElroy, submitter of the highest cash offer for the building. “They’re offering $100,000 and would convert it into a bike shop and a food stand, as well as maybe an apartment on the second floor. The negotiations are underway and I would ask the board to support this article,” Haddad told selectmen.

Real estate agent John Carver changed the game. Carver lives in Groton and worked for a number of years for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Westford; he is now operating his own business in Groton: eRealty-MA. Following up on a letter that he mailed to the board, Carver told the board that the town’s RFP process was flawed and that the most lucrative proposal for sale of the old Center Fire Station in particular was “inadequate.”

“I’m making that statement based on over 25 years of experience as a real estate broker in this community. I have several hundred transactions under my belt, many of them nontraditional type sales,” he told selectmen.

“I”m familiar with the property, I’m familiar with assessed values, and the relationship of sales prices to assessed values. My recommendation would be to put this RFP out one more time, a third and final time. And market it concurrently with a realtor, preferably me, but not necessarily, and this is perfectly acceptable. Chapter 30b (The state law controlling procurement contracts by a government entity — Ed.) and the user guide to Chapter 30b which I happen to have read, put out by the inspector general, said by all means you can use a realtor to assist in the marketing of these properties. The realtor’s job would be to facilitate showing the property and elicit proper bids through the RFP process,” Carver said.

The big problem with the town’s process regarding its real estate offerings, he said, was marketing, or the lack of it.

“What really bothers me the most about this is that all the bids that have come in whether we’re talking about the fire station or Prescott are from Groton residents. We have not scratched the surface of the landscape of potential buyers. You just don’t know. If you put it in the Multiple Listing Service, it goes throughout the state of Massachusetts, it is picked up by to thousands of brokers with thousands of buyers, and the listing information is then sent out to large online real estate websites like Trulia, Zillow.com and Realtor.com. I know we can do better.”

Selectman Jack Petropoulos was convinced. “I couldn’t agree more, about the point that we think we have a great set of offers from a town of ten thousand people but there’s a market — all of Massachusetts, all of New Hampshire, that doesn’t seem to have heard about this. It’s just a great point.”

He went on: “I would like to suggest that we put a small committee together, made up of people such as Mr. Carver; I would like to participate; and some other small set of people familiar with the real estate industry to come up with a plan for this town to do a better job of how to market our properties in the future. There’s an opportunity for creativity that is being brought up here and until we bring that creativity forward, I don’t think we’ve done our job for the taxpayers in town.”

In general, the town has advertised the properties and the RFPs using the minimum standards the state requires: a listing in the state’s central registry and two ads a week apart in a local newspaper, in this case, The Groton Herald, which in November reported a circulation of 745 subscribers and 458 retail sales, fewer than the competing Groton Landmark, Lowell Sun, or Boston Globe.

After some discussion, the Board of Selectmen voted to support Petropolous’s motion to form a working group to look at the way the town’s real estate process can be improved. They did not set a deadline for recommendations to be returned. Petropoulos is compiling a list of interested people and town officials to make up the ad hoc body.

The BoS also voted to move forward with putting the RFPs that are in process before Town Meeting, seeking its authority to sell or lease the properties. It did not endorse Carver’s suggestion to put out RFPs again, but didn’t vote against that either, leaving that option open.

It also did not agree to implement the Prescott School building RFP, but did include a preparatory article on the town meeting warrant, authorizing it to proceed with the lease or sale of the property in general, without specifying a buyer or purpose. An appraisal of the property has been commissioned, and is due this week.

Chairman Peter Cunningham made the point that for the center fire station, “We have had an RFP that has gone out and it has been responded to. We have a viable person interested in buying the property and a specific use so I would be a little bit concerned about pulling the rug our from under that at this stage, after having gone through all of that.”

Center Fire Station RFPs

Bidder Intended Use (By Floor) Price Offered Proposal link
Andreasen & Campaneschi First: Restaurant
Second: Residential
$5,000 Read the proposal.
Dan McElroy First: Retail / bike shop / food
Second: Offices / Residential
$100,000 Read the proposal.
David Melpignano First: Stock video / video production
Second: Residential
$20,000 Read the proposal.
John Kelly First: Cabinet / carpentry shop
Second: Free public meeting rooms
$40,000 Read the proposal.
Jenepher Spencer Single family residence $75,000 Read the proposal.

Prescott School Building RFP

Read the proposal.

According to Haddad, at least two potential tenants, new businesses to Groton, are negotiating for space in the renovated building, should the proposal be accepted.