MILLINOCKET – Seeking to eliminate blight and to control and encourage downtown development, the Town Council voted 4-3 Thursday to accept the purchase of the former J.J. Newberry department store building for about $42,000.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue outbid downtown restaurant owner Tom St. John and developer Robert Benjamin to secure the building from Bangor Savings Bank on Thursday morning during an auction at the 225 Penobscot Ave. site of the structure.
Conlogue’s final bid of $40,000 came after St. John opened bidding at $10,000 and Benjamin and Conlogue exchanged bids that climaxed for Benjamin at just under $40,000, Conlogue said. The council approved the additional $2,000 to pay back taxes, water-use fees and closing costs.
Residents and majority voters, including Chairman Wallace Paul and Councilors Jimmy Busque, David Cyr and Scott Gonya, called the purchase a good move for Millinocket. They said it would lead to the elimination of what has been an eyesore downtown for more than 10 years. No renovation timeline has been set.
“No, I did not want to spend $40,000, but yes, I did want to control that building,” Gonya said.
“I applaud the purchase of this building. I think it was a wise move to gain control of it,” resident John Civiello said. He reminded councilors that “the two prior owners had plans [for the building] that never came to fruition.”
In the spring of 2005, Guilds Hollowell formed the limited liability company Katahdin Community Center LLC, and announced plans to secure the building for a downtown arts, culture and retail center.
The effort sparked controversy after several self-imposed deadlines were missed and months of inactivity that culminated when the bank began foreclosure proceedings seeking $122,509 on March 16, 2007.
Councilors Bruce McLean, Jim Mingo and Matthew Polstein, who voted against the purchase, agreed that they wanted the building revitalized, but disliked competing against private investors who might have had good plans for the building.
Polstein suggested Conlogue ask Benjamin whether he would buy the building at the amount of his last bid in exchange for a firm timeline on his development plans.
“I would not want to see the building sell for peanuts for someone doing nothing with it,” Polstein said.
Busque, Cyr and Gonya agreed and expanded the idea to include anyone interested in developing the property.
Adjacent to town hall, the almost 20,000-square-foot building is among the largest commercial spaces on Penobscot Avenue, one of downtown’s main arteries, and in Millinocket. Although structurally sound, it’s too much of a detractor to other businesses to sit idle, councilors said.
If no other plans emerge, the town can raze the building for a green space, small park or parking lot. The town has as much as $158,998 in tax increment financing funds on account that it can put toward buying and razing costs.
Resident Alyce Maragus suggested that “anybody who has any plans with that building be allowed to do [them] before that building is demolished.”
The effort to create a cultural center – and, presumably, the town’s $30,000 investment in it – did produce some benefits, Paul said. Center workers removed wiring, pipes, tiling and fixtures from the building, leaving a shell of a building but effectively saving the town gutting costs, which might have been heavy.
A contractor who looked at the building at the auction commented that creating a similar shell building today would cost as much as $200,000, McLean said.
Not that this prevented auction attendees from getting a bit wet. Conlogue joked before the meeting that he spent much of his time at the auction trying to find a spot in the building where roof leaks couldn’t get him.
“We ended up getting rained on pretty good,” he said.