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North Adams Council Nixes Training Center at Sullivan School
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
04:02AM / Wednesday, January 29, 2020
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The City Council on Tuesday rejected a bid of $1 for the vacant Sullivan School.


Mayor Thomas Bernard speaks to negotiations on the property if the sale was approved.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday night rejected a proposal to turn Sullivan School into a manufacturing training center, ending months of debate over the future of the vacant building.
 
The vote was 5-2, with only Council President Paul Hopkins and Councilor Wayne Wilkinson voting for the sale.
 
The defeat was put down to concerns over the size of the parcel, the residential neighborhood and intimations that a zoning change might be sought.
 
The newly organized Berkshire Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center, or BAMTEC, had offered a $1 for the 56-year-old school with the intent to invest upwards of $11 million into the building and another $3 million in equipment.
 
The nonprofit made up of local business and manufacturing owners and educators had envisioned the training center as a catalyst for small-business development in advanced manufacturing.
 
"It's just a bump in the road, we're still moving forward," said Michael Therrien, president of BAMTEC and a computer-aided design instructor at Franklin County Technical School in Greenfield. Therrien said the center is looking at other locations.
 
BAMTEC officials had said previously they had bid on the Sullivan site because it had become available shortly after they had incorporated. The only other bidder had been artist and local developer Eric Rudd, who had considered the school as work/live spaces for artists and had bid $50,000. 
 
The Finance Committee toured the vacant structure last week, a walk-through that had Councilor Wayne Wilkinson doing a complete flip from his initial opposition to the plan.
 
"The building is quite frankly in a lot worse conditions than I thought ... I was 100 percent against selling this for a dollar but after the tour, I believe this building is beyond hope," he said. "This is a tear down ... You cannot rebuild this building back to present code."
 
A professional commercial appraiser, Wilkinson said his opinion was that the 51,000 square foot, four-story school was functionally and economically obsolete.
 
But despite the his opinion that it was time to get it off the city's hands, other councilors raised issues over the use of the property. 
 
Councilor Jason LaForest said the idea was "noble" and he would not have a problem with a training center in a more appropriate part of the city. But this "mammoth hulk of a useless building" could still end up back on the city's hands if the bidders couldn't make good on their plans, he said. 
 
Councilor Lisa Blackmer, who had not been on the council last year when the bid was proffered, asked if the city would get a payment in lieu of taxes on the nonprofit venture. Mayor Thomas Bernard said the city could ask for that in negotiations if the council desired. 
 
Another councilor not in office last year when the proposal was brought forth, Robert Moulton Jr., asked if the 12-acre parcel could be subdivided to leave the school with less land and leave the city with 8 acres or so that could be used for affordable housing or recreation or something else. LaForest also noted the land alone was worth $500,000. 
 
When the time came to vote, all three new councilors — Blackmer, Moulton and Sweeney — voted against the sale, along with LaForest and Marie T. Harpin. Councilors Benjamin Lamb and Keith Bona recused themselves and spent that portion of the meeting in the audience. Lamb, in his position as director of economic development at 1Berkshire, has been advising BAMTEC and Bona has a business relationship with Rudd. 
 
The mayor said the city would re-issue a request for proposals on the property. 
 
The council did approve Rules of Order for this session that vary little from the last term despite opposition from members of the audience over the limitations to public comment.
 
Bryan Sapienza, an unsuccessful candidate for council and a member of the Public Arts Commission, noted that the rules kept speaking on agenda items at two minutes at the beginning of the meeting during hearing of visitors. 
 
"I think it would be beneficial to bring back open forum at the end of every agenda item," he said. "I think that it gave the council a good feedback on what the public is thinking at the time of the vote, before the vote was taken."
 
Robert Smith, a consistent attendee at meetings like Sapienza, said he didn't agree with councilors' reasonings that the speaking limitations were to shorten meetings and that citizens should be better versed in agenda items. 
 
Rather, he said, the length of meetings were often because of presentations and councilors "rehashing the same points over and over."
 
Their objections were shared by Blackmer, a former council president, who had restored comments on agenda items during her term. 
 
"I think the public should be able to speak on the agenda items," she said, adding that she also thought abstention should be made before deliberation. "If you have a conflict, you should not be part of deliberation."
 
The council approved her amendment on abstention but voted against her attempt to refer the rules to the General Government Committee and voted to keep hearing of visitors to the beginning of the meeting. 
 
In other business,
 
Bona provided the council with examples of short-term rental policies from other communities. The city has been considering how to develop such a proposal and it has been under discussion for several years and is currently with the Community Development Committee.
 
Lamb said the city has been working on this with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and that the Community Development Committee has the goal of bringing back rules by May.
 
• The council approved the appointments of Jennifer Breen to the Housing Authority for a term to expire on July 1, 2024, to fill the unexpired term of James "Matt" Neville.
 
Rebbecca Cohen to the Redevelopment Authority for a term to expire on June 1, 2024, to fill the unexpired term of Paul Hopkins.
 
Paul W. Marino and Peter Siegenthaler to the Historical Commission for terms to expire Jan. 2, 2023. Marino is a reappointment.
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