AUGUSTA — The owner and would-be developer of the historic Kennebec Arsenal property says he is in talks with other developers who could take over.
Tom Niemann, of North Carolina-based Niemann Capital, said he’s talked to several developers in Maine and there is interest from at least one of them in either joining forces with his firm, taking the lead in the project or taking over the redevelopment entirely.
Looming over Niemann’s efforts on the property are the ongoing concerns of state and city officials that the historic riverfront property in Augusta is being allowed to continue to deteriorate and no redevelopment has taken place since Niemann has had the property.
In April, state officials gave Niemann 45 days to find another developer and said if he did not, the next step could be to seek the return of the former state property though the courts.
Niemann said Friday he doesn’t think the state has initiated legal action against him. While he wasn’t able to meet the state’s deadline, Niemann said he is looking to do as the state asked and find another developer.
“I believe I’m achieving what the state asked me to do,” Niemann said. “I’m continuing to work towards moving the development forward. If that means another developer has to come in and take over completely, I’m open to that. I’m not looking to be the lead developer any longer. We’d love to continue to be involved in some capacity. I’m more committed to the arsenal, and Augusta, now more than ever.”
The city gave Niemann a tax break on the property in hopes it could spur new life at the prominent eight-building, 22-acre site tucked between the state’s east side campus and the Kennebec River.
Several state officials involved or familiar with the arsenal and Niemann could not be reached for comment Friday.
City Manager William Bridgeo said he was not aware of any new developments with the property. He said he probably would know if the state was taking legal action to reclaim the property from Niemann, and he is not aware of any developers’ inquiries to the city staff about the arsenal property.
“To my knowledge, my staff has not been approached by anybody” with questions or interest in the Arsenal, Bridgeo said Friday. “At some point you’d expect, if a developer other than Niemann was seriously considering getting involved, that they’d be getting in touch with us.”
Bridgeo said the city’s concerns remain the same: that the property is being neglected and vandalized and needs to be activity redeveloped, not allowed to sit vacant as it largely has under Niemann’s ownership.
“We as a city would welcome any progress by Tom Niemann or anybody else at this point,” he said. “The whole community continues to be concerned the gradual deterioration at that site continues. It’s discouraging.”
Niemann said he’s talked with multiple developers and that one Maine developer, in particular, seems especially well-suited, interested and capable of moving the project forward. He said he could not disclose who, but expected to be able to announce details in September.
Bridgeo said there’s nothing really new in Niemann’s claim that he’s talking with other developers.
“I don’t think that’s new. He’s been talking about that for a while now,” he said.
While acknowledging his firm hasn’t been able to make much progress on the arsenal, Niemann said he is proud of his firm’s work in Maine and elsewhere, including what he said was a $32 million investment in the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville to redevelop the former industrial building into 67 rented loft apartments and office space for seven major business tenants, including MaineGeneral Health and TD Insurance.
Niemann said he also spent months in Maine before acquiring the arsenal property from the state, for $280,000 seven years ago, working with then-Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature to pass legislation creating an historic tax credit system to make it more cost-effective for developers to take on historic building projects.
Since a June article in the Kennebec Journal in which state officials warned they may initiate legal action to take the property back, Niemann said he has been in “constant contact” with Alan Henry, director of special projects for the state Bureau of General Services, to keep him up to date on his efforts to find a new developer to join the project.
“I’ve kept the state apprised of my doings,” Niemann said. “I’m focused on the solution. I don’t know what the state is going to do, but hopefully they’ll put their support behind us, because we’re doing the best we can. What we need to focus on is how do we get life back into the arsenal? The best way to do that is for everyone to continue to work together.”
When Niemann first got the property, he proposed it would be redeveloped into new uses such as shops, restaurants, housing or offices.
Asked his preference for what should become of the arsenal, Bridgeo said, “What he said he’d do when he bought it — seven years ago.”
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 a border dispute with Canada a prime concern, according to state officials. 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.
State Historian Earle Shettleworth has said the property is a National Historic Landmark and 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.