Keene city councilors voted Thursday to negotiate selling the land under Corner News to the building’s owner, despite the city manager’s advisement against doing so.
Roberta Mastrogiovanni bought the Corner News building at 2 Gilbo Ave. in 2002, according to online property records, but she leases the 0.04 acres of land from the city. Her request to buy the land went to the finance, organization and personnel committee, which split 2-1 in favor of selling the property at its Nov. 14 meeting, a recommendation the full council debated Thursday.
The committee’s recommendation to negotiate the sale passed the council, 9-6.
Councilors Philip M. Jones, Gary P. Lamoureux, Janis O. Manwaring, Robert J. O’Connor, Thomas F. Powers and David C. Richards opposed the sale. Voting in favor were Councilors Kate M. Bosley, Bettina A. Chadbourne, Terry M. Clark, Randy L. Filiault, Mitchell H. Greenwald, George S. Hansel, Stephen L. Hooper, Carl B. Jacobs and Robert B. Sutherland.
The vote allows City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon to negotiate the sale, but not to execute it, which means she will have to return for approval once the terms of the purchase are outlined.
Dragon expressed concerns about whether planned infrastructure projects might affect that property, and if keeping it might be in the city’s best interest, a point a few councilors agreed with. But others said a longtime small business owner’s desire to invest in Main Street outweighed such worries.
Joseph S. Hoppock, Mastrogiovanni’s attorney, sent a letter in late August to City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins with an offer of $60,000 cash for the land, which is equal to its assessed value, according to online property records. The letter was sent to the City Council and then referred to the finance, organization and personnel committee.
Hoppock has said that, without owning the property beneath the building, Mastrogiovanni has little incentive to make significant investments. He’s also said his client could have trouble securing loans to complete upgrades or renovations if the value of the land isn’t part of the property.
Mastrogiovanni wants to preserve the building’s history, Hoppock has said, and would be willing to negotiate any stipulations the city would want with the sale.
In September, Dragon requested a few weeks to consider the offer and returned Nov. 14 recommending against the sale. Her opinion didn’t change Thursday, when she again noted that a handful of the city’s long-term plans intersect or abut the parcel.
Some councilors, including Greenwald and Filiault, said they’ve heard more than once during their years on the council that there were projects that might happen on Gilbo Avenue, or plans coming down the pike for the area. They argued it would be unfair to withhold the land from the business owner because of what they considered vague possibilities.
Dragon, who began her role two years ago, pointed out that she hasn’t been here for any prior discussions surrounding the land.
She said Keene has funding lined up for preliminary design work on Main Street, and infrastructure projects on Gilbo Avenue will be presented in the next capital improvement program. There’s also the potential arts and culture corridor, which extends up Gilbo and across Main Street. Underscoring that she doesn’t know if the Corner News property would be affected, Dragon said she’d rather wait until these projects are closer to completion.
“And one of the things that we don’t wanna be is in the position of coming back and using eminent domain, even to take a piece of it, a sliver or it, to do infrastructure under the ground,” she said, calling it a difficult, uncomfortable and expensive process.
The discussion of whether to sell the land was dotted with a few tense exchanges.
During one of his comments, Filiault delivered his signature line — “it ain’t rocket science, but we try to make it rocket science” — while acknowledging the frequency with which he says it at council meetings.
After Filiault’s impassioned speech later in the meeting about the council needing a backbone to vote “not based on something that might happen four or eight years down the road,” Mayor Kendall W. Lane stepped in.
“I would remind Councilor Filiault that this is, in fact, rocket science,” Lane said.
He mentioned the projects Dragon referenced earlier and urged the council to consider the effect on taxpayers, who might bear the brunt of the cost if the city needs to buy the land in the future at much more than the sale price.
Several councilors offered suggestions for what to include in the contract negotiations, such as clarifying city rights-of-way and giving Keene the right of first refusal if Mastrogiovanni decides to sell the property in the future. The proposed contract will go through the committee process again when it’s ready for approval.
Mastrogiovanni said Monday morning that the negotiations will be “a little daunting, given that the city manager did not want to sell me the land to begin with.” Selling Greyhound bus tickets from her businesses for nearly 20 years, she said she wants to continue in her role as the city’s transportation center and restore her property, which was built in the 1960s.
She tried to buy the land more than a decade ago but said she got the opposite result: then City Manager John MacLean supported the sale, Mastrogiovanni said, and the council voted it down.
Her hope now is to complete the negotiations and get a final vote before the “changing of the guard,” when the new city councilors are sworn in in January.
“It’s all positive,” Mastrogiovanni said of the vote overall. “I’m really happy that the city council has given me permission to negotiate, and once I own the property I think you’ll see that corner really brighten up.”