Local officials admit CVPA not coming back to New Bedford
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Local officials admit CVPA not coming back to New Bedford

Even the T-shirts that the ceramics graduate students are selling now say “Remember the Star Store” instead of “Save the Star Store,” as they did last fall.

Nine months after UMass Dartmouth abruptly closed its graduate school in downtown New Bedford, everyone, it seems, except Mayor Jon Mitchell, is now publicly conceding that the College of Visual and Performing Arts will never come back to its longtime home in the Star Store in downtown New Bedford.

Even Sen. Mark Montigny and state Rep. Chris Hendricks, whose districts encompass the longtime New Bedford art school building, have now publicly acknowledged that there is no scenario under which UMD Chancellor Mark Fuller will ever reopen the school.

“From our perspective, it is clear that the university is not interested in seriously investing in downtown New Bedford,” wrote Montigny in a statement sent to me several weeks ago.

“It’s never going to happen, as far as I’m concerned,” Hendricks told me. “They have no interest,” he said, referring to UMass Dartmouth.

Even if the legislators offered the administrators and academics of the longtime local state institution a free, taxpayer-funded meal ticket from now until eternity, it seems they would not take the deal. 

The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth sees itself as having evolved into a public research university in the woods; it is no longer the local branch of the state university, consistently sensitive to the needs of the community in which it is located. Its administrators and faculty actually feel it could be located anywhere in the state and still fulfill its mission.

Asked by The New Bedford Light for an update about UMD’s CVPA plans, a university spokesman wrote that the school is moving forward with a study of how to build an addition to the arts building on the Dartmouth campus.

“UMass Dartmouth has engaged O’Neill McVoy Architects to undertake a programming study that will help us reconfigure space within our CVPA building and explore additional options to provide outstanding facilities for all our arts programs on our campus,” wrote Ryan Merrill to our reporter Colin Hogan.

Students, however, tell me that faculty members have told them that Chancellor Fuller is planning to construct some sort of prefabricated structure behind the current CVPA building. Sen. Montigny has called the school’s solution “substandard,” and some students still bitterly question how much money the university has spent on the abrupt exit from downtown New Bedford, the temporary facilities located in a strip mall, the ongoing storage of Star Store materials in a trailer, and the new building study.

“They’re spending all this money that could have been spent at the Star Store,” said graduate student leader Fallon Navarro.

CVPA student Fallon Navarro explains her thesis exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I’d give anything to know how much UMD has spent on all of this, should Mr. Fuller be interested in sending me a number.

Montigny, in a statement to me, said that “Funding was never the central issue to this problem.”

Recently, Montigny described UMass Dartmouth as trying to “scapegoat” public officials for its removal of the school from New Bedford. Montigny again noted that an $8 million bond authorization in the Senate to pay for the New Bedford campus remains available. A more recent $30 million bond is also available, his statement said.

State Sen. Mark Montigny last summer at a ceremony honoring Amilcar Cabral of the Cabo Verdean Women Warriors during the country’s fight for independence. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

“This resource remains available today and could have been deployed to complete repairs in the building,” Montigny wrote.

For its part, the university has repeatedly insisted that when Montigny defunded the building after the school failed to secure ownership, its hands were, and continue to be, tied by exorbitant state-mandated green repairs, a cost that some construction experts have refuted.

Given the university’s intransigence, there is an evolution taking place among New Bedford leaders.

The talk now is of transferring the structure from Downey for use as a nonprofit for the arts as well as other purposes.

Read more

► Sen. Montigny’s statement on the Star Store

► Montigny’s letter to the Executive Office of Administration and Finance on transferring the Star Store to a nonprofit

Perhaps, the legislators said, UMass Dartmouth might agree to stage in downtown New Bedford a few classes, an exhibition space, maybe something to do with the law school.

Montigny says he is now working with area nonprofits, including WHALE and the Co-Creative Center, to see if there is something that can be done occupancy-wise, with the state still purchasing the building for $1. 

In a March 29 letter, Montigny informed Secretary of Administration and Finance Matthew Gorzkowicz that both CVPA students and New Bedford residents had demanded the university immediately return to the Star Store but absolutely to no avail.

“University officials have not budged,” he wrote the secretary. So he lobbied Gorzkowicz for a “mixed-use development spearheaded by a public-private partnership” to what the state senator is saying will “unlock a new wave of economic growth” in the city.

“Star Store must be transferred to an entity that is free from the sort of bureaucratic inertia and improper influences that derailed the original transfer of the building,” he wrote.

Talk about condemning a public university and public agencies that the state itself created!

By “improper influences,” it’s difficult to know for sure who or what Montigny meant.

It seems like it might be building owner Paul Downey, who hired a lobbying firm to advocate for himself as the time came near in 2021 for the university to buy the building for $1 and that Downey later claimed had missed the deadline for purchase. Or maybe Montigny meant the state bureaucrats at the Division of Capital Asset Management, the state agency in charge of buying and selling buildings, who Chancellor Fuller has said had a “formula” that explained to him why the state university should never, ever buy old buildings. Or maybe he meant the ivory towers at UMass Dartmouth itself, who seem determined not to come to a compromise with the interests of the city. 

For months, of course, Montigny, the area House members and Mayor Mitchell have made much of the fact they have all been engaged in ongoing discussions with Gov. Maura Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, a bevy of state agencies, and building owner Downey. They were all very hard at work, they said, trying to bring back all, or part, of the UMass Dartmouth campus to New Bedford. But after a very few weeks, it became clear to anyone who knows how Massachusetts government and politics work that the discussions were going nowhere. Gov. Healey well understands the composition of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and Jon Mitchell and Mark Montigny were never going to outweigh UMass President Marty Meehan and the Karam family of Fall River in terms of the political capital that the governor needs. The Karam family has chaired the UMass board of trustees for more than a generation now, arguably during the UMass system’s greatest demise.

So now Montigny and Hendricks have publicly said it’s over. Good for them for at least being honest at last. 

Chancellor Fuller, of course, has been saying as much for months, even going so far as to muse, by way of a trial balloon released to the Public’s Radio, about building the one-story addition to the Dartmouth CVPA campus. 

I just have to say it’s astonishing that a first-time chancellor of a state university, with no prior experience as a chief administrator, could accrue so much power in less than three years in office. Of course, as I’ve said many times, this is not Fuller’s ball game at all but President Meehan’s and the succession of Republican governors, Democratic legislatures and their appointees who have slowly but surely defunded the higher education system in Massachusetts over the past 30 years.

Where does all this leave us? 

Mayor Mitchell, always seemingly marching in a band by himself, continues to talk like he’s going to pull a UMass Dartmouth New Bedford campus rabbit out of his proverbial hat.

When I inquired last week about the prospects of UMD ever returning the CVPA school to New Bedford, the mayor’s spokesman sent me a one-sentence statement saying Star Store “discussions are ongoing” and that his honor has nothing new to share. Months after it was obvious that the school would never come back, Mitchell continued to say he was working on it.

I have to say getting straightforward information out of the Mitchell administration these days seems an impossibility on any number of subjects. Suffice it to say, sources close to the negotiations say that the mayor is now onboard for the same “nonprofit” solution as the state legislators.

The local state lawmakers, however, seem to strongly want the state, not the city, to control the building. That is, if they can get it away from Downey, who made millions for 20 years leasing the building and was supposed to give it back to the state for $1 but didn’t. Something about the state missing the deadline.

“I don’t think anyone in the delegation is gung ho about having the city take control,” said Rep. Hendricks.

The last time the city had control, it conveyed the structure to Mr. Downey, who later said he had every intention of giving it back if Montigny would only fund the thing. 

Ugh. The same old round-and-round of these politicians and businessmen. And meanwhile New Bedford has lost the school and will have to settle for this nonprofit center.

Whatever the mayor is actually discussing, and whoever he’s discussing it with, he’s had other things on his mind lately.

The mayor was busy hosting officials from the National League of Cities for a tour to “highlight Downtown Development” on Thursday morning. It looked for all the world to me as just an opportunity for him to tout his national profile.

He brought the organization leaders to the big Union Street project Steve Beauregard of the Housing Authority is largely responsible for. And then the project that LaFrance Hospitality is doing on the edge of the historic district.

Mayor Jon Mitchell along with officials of the National League of Cities, as well as City Councilor Ryan Pereira and Office of Housing and Community Development Executive Director Josh Amaral, toured construction projects in the downtown Thursday. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

They didn’t go far up the hill, staying far away from the Star Store and even the Hastings Keith federal building that the General Services Administration has also decided to close down. Both projects are supported by federal and state grant programs to make them viable.

The mayor has certainly tried — and the issues inhibiting development are related to macroeconomic issues connected to post-industrial cities that are hard to solve — but there certainly haven’t been breathtakingly exponential gains in construction starts in center city New Bedford in his 13 years in office. It’s simply too difficult for developers to make a healthy return on their construction costs in a rental market like New Bedford.

The most development talk in the city is not in the free market but in the nonprofit sector.

The Whaling Museum, Zeiterion and YMCA are all planning additions, and that’s good, but it’s not the private housing market. 

So nine months after the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth left town without letting any elected official who represents the city know about its plans, the talk is now all about this nonprofit center for the arts. It’s all a step down from the presence of a full-fledged arts college in the heart of the downtown. If anything, UMass Dartmouth should have been considering expanding rather than contracting in downtown New Bedford. There were ways to make the building viable.

Rising taxes fuel mounting debt

One thing that the city has been busy doing relative to the Star Store is making it more difficult for Paul Downey to keep control of it.

The Assessing Department has greatly increased the taxes on the Star Store structure, where Downey has been paying very little in taxes while the nonprofit university was located there.

According to documents provided to me by the Assessors and Treasurer’s Office, the valuation of this property (the Star Store) increased sharply from $1.5 million to $21.4 million just between Tax Year 2023 and Tax Year 2024. You didn’t read that wrong: its assessment increased by $19.9 million in the very quarter UMass Dartmouth left town.

Anis Beigzadeh, a graduate student at the CVPA, works in the studio she lost at the former UMass Dartmouth Star Store building last summer. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

According to documents provided by the two offices, as of the second quarter of 2023, Mr. Downey was up to date on all taxes on the property. According to those same offices, the tax bills for the first two quarters were  $11,208.13 and $11,208.12. But then in the final two quarters of 2023, the tax bills for the same property had increased to $260,442.53 for each of the final two quarters. Since then the taxes have not been paid, and Downey has applied for an abatement.

Moving on to April 19, 2024, Downey’s tax arrearage to the city was put at $1,272,331.99, according to a document from the Treasurer’s Office. That’s just a little less than what the building was valued at before UMass Dartmouth left as Mr. Downey’s tenant in August 2023. 

Ben Berke of The Public’s Radio wrote a fine story a few months ago about these tax increases. He found that the Star Store may now be assessed at the $21.4 million valuation, and that two similar size buildings to the Star Store were valued much lower. The DeMello International Center, a fully occupied office building larger than the Star Store, was assessed at $14.37 million, which itself is a significant hike over the previous year’s valuation. The other large commercial and office buildings in downtown New Bedford are all currently assessed under $5 million, including the Bank of America building at $4.66 million.

I did a little research on tax bills myself and found that the old Webster Bank building (545 Pleasant St., just up Union Street from the Star Store) is assessed at only $2.1 million, with a tax bill of $58,892.74.

Now, the Webster building, although it’s seven stories vs. the Star Store’s four stories, has considerably less square footage as far as I can tell from the Assessor’s records. Only about a little less than one-third as much.

By the way, the assessed value of the DeMello International Center is about $7 million less than the Star Store, even though it has slightly more square feet, if I understand the term “FinArea” (Finished Building Area) on the Assessor’s site correctly. The Bank of America Building is about two-thirds the size of the Star Store and DeMello center but is only assessed at less than one-third of the DeMello and less than one-fourth of the Star Store.

I’m sure there are details related to the nature of the construction and amenities that account for some discrepancy. But this big a discrepancy? Maybe the kilns weren’t moved in the third and fourth quarter as the students have told me.

I asked the mayor’s spokesman about this, and Jonathan Darling told me he was not sure, but he thought there was an awful lot of expensive equipment in that building. Those assessments are accurate, he said.

I couldn’t help wondering about all of this. So I sent the mayor’s spokesman the following question:

“Has Mayor Mitchell, or anyone in the mayor’s office, communicated with any of the Assessors, or the Assessors Office on the valuations of the Star Store, located at 182 Union Street? Has the mayor, or anyone in his office, communicated with anyone in the Treasurer’s Office regarding the amount of assessed taxes on the same property?” 

Darling sent me the following response, which he prefaced with this statement: “Please attribute this statement to me as spokesperson for the City.”

I’m happy to do that. But I would like to note for the record that Darling is asking me to attribute the statement to himself, instead of the mayor. And he is asking me to identify him as a spokesman for the city, not the mayor.

Darling works out of the mayor’s office. In fact, his office is right next to the mayor’s. He’s always responding to me on behalf of the mayor and note that the two questions I asked above, directly asked about the actions of the mayor or members of his office.

For the record, I also called the mayor directly to talk about this, as I have the last 13 years. Sometimes the mayor returns my calls and sometimes he does not. My preference, though, is always to talk to Mitchell himself because I feel he’s more genuine than when I speak with him rather than with a public relations person present or through the PR person.

Anyway, here’s what Darling wrote back to me:

“The New Bedford Assessor’s Office determines the value of real estate and personal property for tax purposes for properties across the City. It is a largely technical exercise and the City strives for accuracy and consistency in its determinations.

“In the case of the Star Store, the tax liability and valuation was significantly lowered for decades due to a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreement between the City and Mr. Downey to facilitate the development of the UMD CVPA at the Star Store. With the expiration of the TIF agreement, the property is now being, as required by law, taxed on its full assessed value, which is $21.4 million.

“Property owners who disagree with their assessments may appeal by filing for a tax abatement. Mr. Downey has filed for an abatement on the Star Store; the City does not comment on the specifics of pending litigation or administrative appeals.”

I called Downey’s spokesperson, but he’s not commenting, as he has not throughout this whole UMass Dartmouth controversy.

Well, what Darling says is certainly true. Although I was already familiar with how the system works. 

What I was really interested in getting at was the big discrepancy between the taxes assessed on the Star property and the other big downtown buildings, and whether the mayor or anyone in his office has been talking to the assessors department, or elected assessors.

Anyway, that’s what I know about the latest on the Star Store and the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts. 

Email columnist Jack Spillane at [email protected].

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