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North Adams Mayor, Council Avoid 'Nuclear Option' on Mohawk
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
11:26AM / Wednesday, November 24, 2021
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Gail Grandchamp gives an impassioned speech about the importance of North Adams and its history at Tuesday's City Council meeting.


Attorney Lee Smith of KP Law, the city's solicitor, answers questions about his opinion on the mayor's authority over the Mohawk sale.

Update: A special meeting to hear a presentation on the proposed sale of the Mohawk has been scheduled for 7 p.m. on Dec. 1.  

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council and the mayor avoided a "nuclear option" over the sale of the Mohawk Theater by agreeing to a meeting with the proposed bidder.

 
The council voted to hold a special meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 7, to hear from Veselko Buntic, a New York City developer who is proposing to develop the vacant theater in tandem with a hotel in the abutting Dowlin Block.
 
Mayor Thomas Bernard two weeks ago told the council he had accepted a bid for the vacant 83-year-old theater and would move forward without their input. This action, based on an opinion from the city solicitor, had frustrated councilors who had been told repeatedly any bid below assessment would be presented to them for review.
 
City Councilor Keith Bona on Tuesday floated a possible reconsideration vote on the municipal property if the mayor kept the council out of the loop. Bona had placed the process of the sale on the agenda and had asked for access to the city's attorney.
 
"I don't want to make this about one administration or another administration. The bid price, the buyer and the project are not what I'm disputing," he said. "Why did we spend five meetings discussing what we, the City Council, wanted for the sale of the seat theater if none of it mattered?"
 
The gutted moviehouse on Main Street has become a symbol of the city's history and economic dreams over the past 30 years. The city's invested nearly $3 million in grant funding in studies and structural supports with no results. The council two years ago voted to declare it surplus property and seek a developer who could put it to use and, most importantly, restore the marquee.
 
During those often emotional meetings in 2019, the council voted a condition that restoration and maintenance of the marquee be part of the request for proposals. It considered, but then rejected, a condition that the mayor bring it back to them based on conversations, assurances and past precedent.
 
The mayor, however, had sought an opinion from the solicitor, KP Law, about the process and was told council approval wasn't necessary.
 
"I was asked by the mayor to provide an opinion as to whether this matter had to go back before City Council before an award of the contract will be made or reviewed," said attorney Lee Smith of KP Law in response to a series of questions from Bona. Under the state's 30B laws and the city charter, he continued, "what we're left with is the order of the council in February 2019 which gave the mayor authority to proceed with a disposition and execute a purchase-and-sale agreement without further stipulation and coming back to the council."
 
Bona pointed to the meetings during which the council was assured of review, a communication from the mayor's office reiterating that and the understanding that it would happen when the vote was taken.
 
"We voted with one understanding and then the rules changed after we voted. And I believe that's no different than for example, the RFP itself changed," said Bona "If the RFP changed, it would have to come back to the council."
 
But Smith said, in his opinion, those discussions "are not themselves legally binding, notwithstanding your frustration with how the process has evolved."
 
If the council were to revote, he recommended rescinding the declaration of surplus property and starting clean because of the amount of time that had passed.
 
Councilor Benjamin Lamb was concerned how a revote would affect the current bidder and its implications for any future bidders on city property.
 
"Is there a step that can be taken amongst this chamber, amongst the legislative body of the city to ensure that process, if the mayor is open to it, again, to your point, if that's not where he wants to go, then you know, the nuclear option becomes the option," he said. 
 
Nearly two hours into the discussion, Bernard offered a compromise. 
 
"I guess the open question is what is what am I prepared to do?" he said. "And so I would suggest that I am not prepared to create a nuclear option. I am not prepared to do anything that has a chilling effect on the culture of development in the city of North Adams." 
 
He suggested the matter be referred to the appropriate committee to keep the process moving forward and to invite the bidder to give a presentation. The bid had been accepted but the contract that will include progress benchmarks is still being formulated. The city is not committed at this point, Smith confirmed.
 
"There'd be no execution of purchase and sale until it has had that opportunity to be to be vetted and a recommendation brought back to the council," said the mayor. "Other than a public pinky swear, I can't offer you an assurance other other than to say, I am not looking for this to become a nuclear option. I believe this is in the interest of the city. I believe this process can move forward with input and oversight. And I am happy to work in collaboration on that while moving forward."
 
Rather than going to committee, the councilors agreed that it should be a full council presentation and voted for the special meeting.
 
At the meeting's conclusion, Bona and Bernard pinky-swore on it.
 
The meeting had attracted a larger crowd than usual and their comments tended to focus on one of three aspects — the need for something to happen at the Mohawk, the price of the bid ($21,000) and powers of the legislative body.
 
There were a number of calls for the city's history not to be forgotten, including a 13-minute impassioned speech by Gail Grandchamp, who won her first pro boxing match in 1987 at what was then the Mohawk Performing Arts Center. Grandchamp said she had the backing to bring the moviehouse back to life.
 
"It's time for the people to be heard, the people's input, and if we want to invest in our own city and have something to hold, then we'll come together," she said. "There's all kinds of smart people in here."
 
State Rep. John Barrett III, the former mayor who took control of the Mohawk, spoke at hearing of visitors to urge the council to stick to the long-sought vision of a performing arts center there.
 
"I hope tonight that the council will take this back, rescind your vote and start all over again," he said, adding that the city was selling itself cheap.
 
Others focused on the price of $21,000, far below the assessed value of more than $400,000. Joseph Smith, a former candidate for council, said the city should have taken a bid for $100,000 earlier this year.
 
Several councilors said the price wasn't the issue, it was the potential for reuse since the building will need millions just to bring it up to code. Councilor Wayne Wilkinson noted that it will also be back on the tax roll and if nothing happens in two years, the city could at least get it back with a new roof and a restored marquee.
 
Bernard confirmed one aspect of that earlier bid that gave the review committee pause was the plan to lease the theater to the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, which owes the city some $12,000 in back payments.
 
"I'm not concerned about the price," said Mark Moulton, whose family owned the front of the theater for years. "There's no family more dedicated to the theater than my family, going back years and years. The price means nothing. I don't care if we give it away if the plan is right."
 
But he thought the council should stop the sale if this plan isn't right, pointing to other properties Buntic has purchased that have been sitting for a few years. 
 
Lamb said it wasn't fair to assume nothing is going on — redevelopment can take years and there may be work going on behind the scenes that people aren't aware of.
 
Councilors-elect Jennifer Barbeau and Ashley Shade took issue with what they saw as the council compromising its own power. 
 
"I'm disappointed that you fell for the mayor's proposal," said Barbeau.
 
Shade said councilors were setting "a dangerous precedent."
 
"You should do the reconsideration to make sure we don't give away power," she said, adding it wasn't about the proposal. "The council still needs to keep its power and not give it up ... follow it up with an ordinance so it can never happen again."
 
Bona said the bidder deserved the opportunity to be heard and didn't see the compromise as giving up power.
 
"If we don't like it at the next meeting, we rescind it," responded Bona. "So it's slightly different, but it's much better than what we had before coming into tonight's meeting. Which was nothing. So I'm comfortable with that."
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