The request was very straightforward: Will the city sell the owner of Corner News the land under her building for its assessed value? Representing Roberta Mastrogiovanni, the business owner in question, attorney Joe Hoppock brought the request to the Keene City Council in August. Last month, three members of the council’s finance panel split 2-1 in favor of recommending the sale (two other members were absent), and the full council agreed, in a 9-6 vote, to task the city manager with negotiating the deal.
During that latter discussion, Councilor Randy Filiault argued his peers were overthinking the situation, claiming: “This ain’t rocket science.” It’s a refrain he often uses when he wants to end discussion in his favor. Often he’s right, and the issue is far simpler than the politicians on the council make it appear.
Despite the simplicity of the request, however, this isn’t such a case.
No, it’s not rocket science. In science, everything works according to set laws of physics, and can therefore be calculated and accurately projected. Even if those calculations are complex, once made, the physics will hold. In the case of the land under the Corner News, the possible fallout of selling is far less knowable. There is no science that can ensure the outcome, as there are too many variables in the picture and the chance plans or minds will change along the way.
The land in question isn’t very big. Encompassing the footprint of the business itself, it’s less than 2,000 square feet, roughly 1/25th of an acre. Rather, it’s the location that’s most key to the deal (or no deal). The corner of Gilbo Avenue and Main Street, and across to Railroad Square, is among the most important in Keene’s downtown. With all respect to Central Square, one could easily argue the Corner News sits at the very hub of the city. There’s good reason the railroads that helped grow Keene into the region’s center stopped right there.
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, arguing against the sale, noted there are several planned projects that could cross that particular property, including the proposed city arts and culture corridor, Main Street work, infrastructure improvements planned on Gilbo Avenue, and discussions of a potential transportation hub. Any or all of those projects could require having to access the property, something that would be made more difficult and possibly more expensive if the land were not owned by the city.
Jack Dugan, president of Monadnock Economic Development Corp., who proposed the arts corridor, has said selling the property would have no effect on that project. And Councilor George Hansel, who chairs MEDC’s board, voted in favor of selling. But at a charrette last week, multiple plans were put forth for an elaborate entryway to the corridor at Gilbo Avenue that seemingly could encroach on the Corner News site.
Several councilors argued the city ought not to put off a decision on selling simply because of some “vague” plans that might not come to fruition, especially when a local business owner wants to invest in the downtown. Curiously, the council hasn’t seemed to treat the arts corridor as a vague plan in other respects, repeatedly raising it as a possible reason not to act on issues in that area since Dugan’s plan came to light.
Mastrogiovanni is a longtime business owner in downtown Keene and her request deserves due consideration. Though she said she’s sought the property previously, this request comes, coincidentally or not, just months after Dugan announced plans for the arts corridor, which could radically affect the value of properties in that stretch. Mastrogiovanni may be hoping to buy before its value quickly rises. Or she may simply be concerned she’ll be forced out or that her business would suffer as the area undergoes changes, if she doesn’t own the land. Or she may, as Hoppock suggested, simply want to improve the property and needs to own the land to obtain financing.
In any case, Dragon now must negotiate a deal for the property, and bring it back to the council. We hope both she and councilors take great care to ensure the city is protected in case it ultimately needs access to that land. Treading carefully ain’t rocket science, after all.