April 05, 2020

Peirce School plan gets Belfast council backing

BELFAST – William Ryan has a vision for the former Peirce School and the City Council likes what he sees.

On Tuesday, the council voted 4-1 to instruct City Manager Terry St. Peter to negotiate the sale of the school to Ryan for $265,000. Ryan intends to convert the historic building into the Belfast Academy of Music, a school offering courses in music and the performing arts.

Ryan’s proposal won out over offerings made by the Cornerspring Montessori School and John and Stephanie Clapp. The Cornerspring proposal carried an offer of $100,000 for the building while the Clapps offered $250,000.

Based in Belfast, Cornerspring wanted to use the school to expand its classes beyond its current preschool and kindergarten to the elementary grades. The Clapps, owners of the Cellar Door Winery in Lincolnville, proposed converting the building into a combination residence and art gallery. All three prospective owners stated they were prepared to pay either property taxes or payment to the city in lieu of taxes.

“It’s a hard choice, but I think the Belfast Academy of Music is the one I want to stand behind,” Councilor Denis Howard said in throwing his support to Ryan.

Howard was joined by councilors Cathy Heberer, Rachel Brewster and James Roberts. Robert Gordon, who favored the Clapps’ proposal, voted against selling the school to Ryan.

St. Peter suggested that the sale agreement include wording that would give the city the option to buy back the school if the Belfast Academy of Music is unsuccessful in marketing its programs. He also said the agreement should require that the building continue to be used as a school in the event another ownership group took over.

Ryan, owner of Ryan Art Gallery on Main Street, plans to convert the upper floor of the Peirce School into a private residence. The basement and ground floors will be used as classrooms. The renovations are estimated to cost $60,000. Ryan told the council he was prepared to close on the building within 120 days of an approved agreement.

He said he intends to operate under three inter-related business segments. The first segment will offer extended music curriculum for area students. Budget cuts have reduced music offerings in many of the area’s schools. Music instructors in the Belfast school system have been reduced from six to four over the past two years. Ryan expects to finance this segment with grants and indicated that the program would be self-sufficient within two years.

The second segment would be to provide rental space for applied music teaching for area students. The school basement will be altered to create six rooms for private music instruction. Each room will be equipped with an upright piano, proper lighting and music stands.

The third segment will involve standard classroom curriculum of Music Theory, Music History, Harmony, and Performance Arts. In addition to tuition students, the programs will be open to all Belfast area students. In addition to the standard curriculum, BAM will offer seminars, workshops and lectures by the many professionals living in the Belfast area. BAM also intends to import seminars from Boston and New York.

Ryan told the council that the programs would be available to all area private, home-school, or public school students.

Supporters of the private Cornerspring Montessori School also attended Tuesday’s council meeting, many speaking in favor of the school’s offer. School director Paula Johnson said her school provides an alternative to the city’s public schools. She said by expanding into the elementary grades, Cornerspring would be able to offer parents a choice presently only found at private schools in Rockport, Rockland or Camden.

Johnson said the Montessori system “allowed children to be individuals and not be constrained by having a reward system and having standards put up on them.” She said the building was bequeathed to the city for educational purposes and that “it has always been part of the community and I wish it to remain in the community.”

Johnson’s offer, however, did not match the dollars proposed by Ryan’s group. Councilor Heberer said that while she “loved” the Cornerspring proposal, it was the council’s duty to consider the best deal for the taxpayer.

“We do need to look at the money,” she said.

Correction: This article ran on page B3 in the State edition.

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