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Mohawk Theater Sale as Multi-use Venue Moving Forward
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
11:24AM / Wednesday, November 10, 2021
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Mayor Thomas Bernard on Tuesday stated his intentions to move forward with negotiations to sell the Mohawk Theater.
 
The city had solicited requests for proposals for the defunct 1938 movie house twice over the past year after decades of debate of what to do with the landmark Main Street building. 
 
Bernard is determined to get the building in private hands before the end of his term, telling the City Council that he and the review committee believe the sole bid by New York developer Veselko Buntic, owner of the neighboring Dowlin Block, to create a multipurpose space is the best option.
 
A first round for bids earlier in the year attracted two bids, one that was incomplete and another that was not considered suitable.
 
"My role and responsibility is to represent the best interests of the city of North Adams and our residents. It's not in my interest or that of the city to recommend or select a bad proposal, or one that does not seem viable," he said. "This is especially true with a property with as much history and emotional resonance as the Mohawk Theater."
 
The theater's been closed and mostly gutted for the past 30 years but its marquee had become a symbol of revitalization hopes that have resurfaced every election cycle. 
 
The city took over the theater in 1996 and has attempted to save it because of its history and position on Main Street but has not gotten much further than securing and stabilizing the the structure at a cost of nearly $2 million. The front facade and long lobby entrance was reconstructed but the rest of the building is an empty shell. All the Art Deco interior has been removed. 
 
There have been several professional studies of done with proposals ranging from a few million dollars to tens of millions to transform the structure into a performance center, which the mayor listed on Tuesday. There have been public brainstorming sessions; proposed partnerships with Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (neither of which seemed particularly enthusiastic); and even a pitch to a group of Hollywood stars. 
 
After an emotional series of meetings in 2019, the council agreed to declare the theater surplus on the condition that a deed restriction be put on the marquee to ensure its survival. 
 
But councilors were caught off-guard Tuesday when the mayor said he did not need their approval to sell the theater below its assessed value.
 
"The biggest concern [the review committee] have and it's one that I share is around price," he said. "The proposer is proposing $21,000 for a property valued at $437,000. For me, that alone is not however a reason not to proceed."
 
According to an opinion provided by KP Law, the order approved by the council in 2019 "gives broad authority to the mayor to dispose of the property without further authorization" provided it complies with the state's 30B law.
 
That, stated attorney Lee Smith, requires the city to publish the reason for selling below fair market value in the state's Central Register. "Such notice must further include a valid public purpose, including without limitation, promotion of the public welfare."
 
The council had considered in 2019 also attaching a restriction that any considered bid come back before it for review. That was not brought forward since any bids would be opened public and the mayor suggested council could request them upon opening and have a public discussion. 
 
The City Council did not do so for the bid opened on Oct. 25. 
 
"It seems like we've sort of been pushed out of it," objected Councilor Keith Bona, noting other projects have been brought forward for council approval. "I feel the administration should have gotten a sense of what we were looking for."
 
He expressed his concern over the slow pace of Buntic's other projects and added, "I just don't like how this came in with us knowing very little and sort of being pushed out of the considerations."
 
Councilor Marie T. Harpin, who was re-seated to the vacancy she left in August, agreed with Bona and said she felt it was a rushed "end of term thing." But she liked the proposal.
 
"I think this is great. We all want to see the Mohawk move forward. Absolutely. It seems like a good proposal," she said. 
 
Councilor Benjamin Lamb asked when the precedent was established for the council to vote on proposals that came in below appraised value if it was not required by law. Bona asked if the mayor could have bypassed the council in regard to the Sullivan School proposal and he responded that the Sullivan process had prompted the inquiry to the city solicitor. So yes, council approval was not required.  
 
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson said it was time for the theater to go — it was going to need another roof soon and the city didn't have the funds to spend on it. He asked if the mayor could get it done before the next mayor took over in January. Bernard said he thought he could.
 
Buntic purchased the Dowlin Block, as Dowlin Building LLC, in 2017 and the Porter and Tower building on Eagle Street in 2016. The Porter building was approved for a boutique hotel but work on both buildings has been at something of a standstill.
 
His proposal states that the Dowlin Block, at 103 Main, will now be the site of a hotel and that the shell of the Mohawk will be used in conjunction with that property.
 
"The connection with Dowlin was something that,  in a prior analysis, was considered advantageous for the project," said Bernard. "The proposed use is as a multi-purpose flexible space for events, exhibitions and performances and the proposer mentioned this being planned to operate both independently and in tandem with proposed Dowlin Hotel."
 
The project is expected to take two to four years with the first phase focusing on assessment of the building and restoration of the marquee. The mayor said the review committee questioned the developer about the timeline, funding and status of his current projects. 
 
The proposal is the starting point for negotiations setting terms, conditions and closing dates, Bernard said, and understanding situations may change as the project moves forward.
 
"The city has the option to walk away if the terms aren't agreeable and we will make sure that the timeline and benchmarks including any clawback provisions are clearly understood in the purchase and sale," the mayor said, including taking the theater back if the developer does not fulfill conditions. 
 
He pointed to the presentation of the group buying the Holiday Inn at the beginning of the meeting as a way for keeping the council informed.
 
"I think that the presentation this evening from Mainstreet Hospitality and Peregrine was a great model of an opportunity to invite the proposer to a meeting with the full council or Community Development as appropriate to hear more about the process," Bernard said.
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