Historic property draws concerns
Kennebec Journal – October 1
By Keith Edwards
AUGUSTA — State and city officials are trying to come to the defense of a historic property built in the early 1800s to defend against attack by foreign invaders.
This time neglect, not armies, is the foe of the Kennebec Arsenal.
But deals reached several years ago between the city, state and a North Carolina developer don’t leave officials many weapons with which to work.
State Historian Earle Shettleworth said the state will use one of the few tools it has — the ability, through an easement it holds, to go into the nine buildings of the property — to view and document their condition, to determine whether they are being maintained adequately.
Officials believe they are not.
Vandals have ravaged the buildings just below the former Augusta Mental Health Institute grounds, setting fires, breaking windows and scrawling graffiti.
Nor has any of the proposed development — which included potential housing, retail and restaurant space — occurred at the site.
The ire for the properties’ falling derelict is directed at Niemann Properties, which took ownership of the riverside site in 2007 — in an arrangement many felt would save the property from the very decay and neglect they fear it’s suffering from now.
“We were delighted, a few years ago, when the state landed on a deal for sale of the property to North Carolina-based developer Tom Niemann, who had a very impressive background with historic properties,” City Manager William Bridgeo said this week. “Whether it is because his colleagues dropped the ball, or the economic crisis of 2008 took the wind out of their sails, I’m not too sure. But the reality of the matter is assurances were made: This would be a high priority for them, they’d preserve it first,
before redeveloping it.
“Promises were made,” Bridgeo said. “Clearly, those promises have not been kept.”
Actions the state can take — even if it can show the buildings aren’t being maintained — are unclear, Shettleworth told Augusta city councilors Thursday.
Shettleworth said the possibility the state could take the property back if Niemann doesn’t take steps to secure and preservice the site is something that will be discussed with the attorney general.
“I’m not prepared to answer that right now,” he added. He said photographs documenting the condition of the buildings “will provide us the basis to inform the AG as to whether we want to take further action. We’re at the point where it is a tool we have and a tool we have the responsibility to exercise.”
Shettleworth noted the Arsenal is a designated National Historic Landmark — a designation even more precious than National Historic Register designation. He said the historically and architecturally significant site is considered by preservationists to be the most complete, best-preserved federal military arsenal from its pre-Civil War time period surviving in the entire country.
Niemann could not be reached for comment Friday.
Previously, he has said he remains committed to, and capable of, redeveloping the Arsenal. But Niemann hasn’t been able to secure commercial tenants or financing.
In June, he said the project had been thwarted by the collapse of the real estate market.
He also said his firm had been working with local law enforcement and was willing to press charges against vandals if any were caught, but acknowledged “more needs to be done to protect the site and discourage the vagrants and vandals.”
Bridgeo said Niemann emailed him Thursday and said he would be in Augusta in two weeks, and that he wanted to discuss the Arsenal. Bridgeo said officials would meet with him then.
In the meantime, $27,000 in property taxes has not been paid dating back to spring 2010.
Bridgeo said it’s odd the taxes haven’t been paid because the city, in a tax increment financing agreement signed as part of the property’s sale in 2007, is required to return all property taxes paid on the property back to the developer almost immediately.
Councilor Michael Byron said he found it hard to believe there was nothing in the TIF agreement that would allow the city to void the tax break if certain milestones for preservation or development were not met.
Bridgeo said he and others have scrutinized the TIF deal between the city and Niemann and found no “clawback” provision that would allow them to cancel the deal.
Bridgeo acknowledged that was a mistake, and said all future TIF agreements of the city will contain such a provision.
Betty Lamoreau, acting director of the state Bureau of General Services, said the state’s first preference would be that Niemann preserve and ultimately develop the property for new uses.
“I don’t think anyone would argue the best thing to happen would be the current owner would begin to live up to his obligations,” she said.
Niemann paid the state $250,000 for the property with a second payment of $500,000 promised once a second phase of development began.
But no development has occurred at the site. Nor has that $500,000 payment been made.
Shettleworth said the Arsenal was built between 1828 and 1838 because the federal government felt there needed to be a military presence in the state capital, with the border dispute with Canada a prime concern.
It was used as a federal military arsenal until 1905, when it was turned over to the state and became part of what later became the Augusta Mental Health Institute.
Eventually the Arsenal complex was no longer needed and was declared surplus property by the state.