2015-05-29 / Front Page

Martin’s Point pulls plug

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Just two days after presenting the city of South Portland with a revision of its plan for the former Hamlin Elementary School, located at the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets, Martin’s Point Health Care pulled the plug on a proposal to buy and redevelop the site.

The old school building currently houses the South Portland Department of Planning and Development, while a former playground on the property plays host to the Community Garden Collective. In March, Martin’s Point — a nonprofit multi-specialty medical group with nine primary health care centers and more than 70 doctor’s offices in Maine and New Hampshire — announced it had its eye on the site. According to Dick Daigle, vice president of support services for Martin’s Point, the company would like to close the complex it has occupied for the past 14 years at 51 Ocean St. and relocate to larger quarters.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, Martin’s Point first informed him of its interest in the site “last fall.” At a closed door meeting of the city council, Gailey said, councilors were asked if they would entertain the notion. Maine law does allow private meetings about real estate transfers when the premature release of information might harm a municipality’s bargaining position.

Although Councilor Brad Fox claims a more complete presentation was made, Gailey says councilors were only polled on their interest in entertaining the offer. Both agree a majority of the council said any offer from Martin’s Point needed to be presented in a public session.

That happened at a March 9 council workshop, accompanied by a hue and cry from neighbors of the proposed development, who called plans for a 17,000-square-foot medical building “outsized” to its surroundings. The council asked Daigle to come back after Martin’s Point had secured buy-in from local residents.

On May 7, Daigle met with a local neighborhood association and presented plans for the site, with the building reduced to 12,700 square feet. By that point, Daigle has since revealed, Martin’s Point had presented the city with a formal offer on the property, in an April 28 letter.

On Tuesday, both Daigle and Gailey declined to provide a copy of that letter, saying it was up to the other to authorize its release. However, subsequent letters and comments by the two men indicate it included an offer by Martin’s Point to sell the city a building it had an interest in at the corner of D and E streets once it had acquired the Hamlin School property. Daigle said contrary to public speculation, the deal would not have been an “even swap” for the two buildings, although he acknowledged the offer was an attempt to satisfy Gailey’s concern over relocation of the planning office. The April 28 letter also included a request by Martin’s Point for a tax increment financing (TIF) deal to help finance the development, Daigle and Gailey agree.

After a bit of a stall, events moved rapidly last week.

On Monday, May 18, Parrott Street resident Susan Chase, who is a founding member of the Community Garden Collective and City Councilor Patti Smith’s partner, presented a petition signed by 256 city residents. That document asked for green space at the Hamlin School site by converting it into a public park.

The original five-year lease between the city and the Community Garden Collective expires in December. However, a request for renewal has been made; Gailey says he “demanded from the beginning” that Martin’s Point maintain the collective’s 43 garden plots in any redevelopment of the site.

On May 20, Daigle presented a new plan, preserving additional green space and increasing the garden space to 0.78 acres of the 2.88-acre property. In that letter, Daigle said Martin’s Point spent about $150,000 revising its plans to better suit the demands of neighbors since March 9.

Citing that cost, plus a lack of response to the April 28 letter, Daigle asked Gailey to give Martin’s Point some sort of signal.

“We are reluctant to proceed with any further outreach until we know where we stand,” he wrote. “I am therefore asking for some indication from you as to whether or not our proposal is viable.”

When no answer was forthcoming, Daigle sent another letter, dated May 22, withdrawing its offer.

“We are disappointed that we have not received feedback from the city about the economics we proposed while we have continued to work with the neighbors on planning with the goal of arriving at the very best concept plan possible for all,” Daigle wrote. “We are puzzled by the lack of response to our proposal from the city, which replaces an aging facility with a responsible, high-quality development, while incorporating relocation of the planning offices at no cost to the city, and provides significant tax revenue for years to come.

“However, with no response from the city, and no indication if our proposal aligns with your vision for this property’s redevelopment opportunity, we find ourselves in a position where we must move on,” Daigle wrote.

On Tuesday, Daigle declined to say if Martin’s Point would “move on” to other possible locations in South Portland, or out of the city entirely.

“No decision has been made,” he said. “We are looking at all of our options to relocate.”

However, Daigle did say one of those options might be a site in South Portland’s Brick Hill neighborhood, an option suggested by Councilor Fox, who represents that district.

“The neighborhood would love to have the Martin’s Point facility located there,” Fox said.

But Gailey said Tuesday that Martin’s Point had already rejected a move there. Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings took Martin’s Point officials on a tour of that end of town, he said, before it ever expressed interest in the Hamlin School property.

“They said it was too far from their customers, most of whom are on the east end, and in Cape Elizabeth,” Gailey said.

Meanwhile, Fox has expressed frustration with how the entire Martin’s Point proposal was handled, writing in a May 26 letter to his peers, shared with the press, “time after time” during his first five months in office he has received “complaints about how the city conducts its business.” In addition to the Martin’s Point proposal, Fox cited a proposal for an LP gas storage facility at Rigby Yard and a December tree cutting job that escalated into intervention by local police as two other incidents that have recently put city hall on its pubic relations heels.

“With the number of complaints we’ve received in such a short period of time, perhaps it’s time for us to review why we’re having these issues, and what we can do to improve our communications and procedures,” Fox wrote.

Fox also directly questioned the Martin’s Point process, suggesting it had been mishandled by the city.

“Why was Martin’s Point allowed to have that initial closed session meeting with the council, and do we believe that it may have affected their thinking on our process?” he asked. “Should we ever have a meeting like that again over a proposal to buy city property?

“It seems as though Martin’s Point believed they were in a two-track process, one with the city, and one with the community,” Fox wrote. “Where do we think they got that idea? Were there any ongoing discussions with any city personnel and, if so, what were they about? What feedback about the ‘economics’ were they waiting for? Why did they think something was forthcoming? How could they be ‘puzzled’ by the lack of city response to their proposal?”

On Tuesday, Gailey defended his actions. Essentially, he said, his lack of response to the April 28 Martin’s Point letter was an attempt to obey the March 9 council directive, that Daigle come back after satisfying neighborhood complaints.

“The city is not the one spearheading this initiative. This is a request by Martin’s Point,” he said. “We knew Martin’s Point had a process in front of them, as far as working things out with the neighborhood. They (the council) didn’t authorize or assign staff with anything, or ask staff to work with Martin’s Point. Their directive to Martin’s Point was to go and work things out with the neighborhood, the community garden (collective) and the land trust, and then when you have things worked out, come back to us.

“I did not do anything with the offer letter and I told them I was not going to do anything with it,” Gailey said. “I told them, at this point, their proposal isn’t at the stage to do anything with it, because they don’t have indication from council that they want to move in this direction, and I don’t have any authorization from council to negotiate.”

Gailey also defended the process, swatting aside charges made most pointedly by former Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis, among others, that city dealings with Martin’s Point took place behind closed doors.

“I think if anything this was probably the most transparent process we’ve had when it comes to city real estate,” he said. “In that initial executive session we only asked the council, ‘Hey, would you consider this?’ because we weren’t going to waste everyone’s time if they said no right from the beginning. Everything else has been done in the open.”

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