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Board backs eco-center for Strathmore

TURNERS FALLS — The former Strathmore Mill may become the Flight Patterns Eco-Center, contingent on a vote by the Montague Board of Selectmen to allow a one-year delay for further studies, the results of those studies, and the usual whims of chance.

At their Monday night meeting the selectmen followed the recommendation of town staff evaluating proposals for the project, leaving one proposal on the table and declining the other.

Two groups submitted proposals laying out similar visions for the property, on different scales and with differing degrees of commitment.

ThreshHold Cooperative proposed to transform one building, the relatively intact Building 11, into a mixed-use center for art, activism and equitable development, with studio, light industrial, performance and green living space for members and renters.

Flight Patterns LLC made no firm proposal but asked for more time and exclusive rights to evaluate the property with an eye to redevelopment of the entire complex as a model green facility dedicated to arts, education, commerce and sustainability.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey said town staff recommended accepting Flight Patterns’ request, following negotiation, and declining ThreshHold’s.

Ramsey said the principal reason for denying the Turners Falls-based ThreshHold group’s proposal

“The principal reason for not recommending them is they have a lack of redevelopment experience and capacity to make a major redevelopment project like this get off the ground,” Ramsey said.

The three people comprising Flight Patterns — Benjamin “BJ” Warshaw and Marie Rossettie of New Jersey and Joel Roston of Boston — were present and presented their vision for the property and reasons for caution.

Warshaw said he and Roston are musicians, Rossettie an artist and illustrator and he has some experience with development but the majority of their expertise comes from the contractors they work with.

Warshaw reiterated the argument made in the group’s original proposal that the town’s existing environmental, structural, traffic and market feasibility studies of the site are out of date and more are needed.

Warshaw said the group proposes to spend $40,000 to $80,000 on further studies if granted a year to do so, with the broad range of the numbers due to the potential for environmental studies involving hazardous materials to snowball.

Without these studies the group can’t begin to approach the potential investors they will need to redevelop the complex, Warshaw said. “We can’t even give a properly formulated business plan until these studies happen,” he said.

“The downside is not being able to sell the mill for one year,” said Ramsey, asked whether there was a downside for the town, drawing laughter from the board.

The town took the all but vacant Strathmore Mill complex for back taxes in 2008 and has since paid to maintain it, including removal of a building reduced to asbestos-contaminated rubble by a 2007 arson. Attempts to attract buyer interest in that time have failed.

Ramsey said Flight Patterns could submit a proposal or walk away at the end of the year, but the planned negotiations will include securing town access to the studies paid for by the group, which could then be used in attracting other developers.

Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio said the town would not be sitting still but taking a major step toward development, whether with Flight Patterns or another developer.

Under the town’s so-called homesteading program, the properties would be awarded for $1 to developers promising suitable investment and deemed viable by town officials.

Asked by town meeting member Jeanne Golrick whether they had considered selling the building given the amount of money invested by the town, Selectmen’s shairman Christopher Boutwell, said he would be opposed to selling the property for $1. Members Mark Fairbrother and Patricia Allen disagreed.

Fairbrother said there wasn’t much chance of getting a lot of money for the complex given the multi-million-dollar investment required to restore the decaying property.

“Nobody’s going to pay half a million dollars just for the privilege of walking through the doors with what’s currently there,” Fairbrother said.

The selectmen signed a letter thanking ThreshHold and declining their offer. Boutwell said they would take Flight Patterns’ proposal under advisement and see what they come up with.

Ramsey said the issue of capacity was not only financial but manpower, with ThreshHold advancing similar plans for the equally disused former Railroad Salvage. Member Andrew Huckins described that development as a base for the larger project, providing space for members to live and work while renovating the Strathmore. The Railroad Salvage project was in the early planning stages as of last month, with no sale yet made.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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