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Grayhouse is rebuffed, as selectmen ‘reboot’ process of Housatonic School reuse

"I feel like I would like more of guarantee that you can actually move forward with financing it. It doesn't give me a lot of feeling that this could happen." -- Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis

Great Barrington — A proposal to redevelop the now-shuttered Housatonic School isn’t officially dead yet but it’s looking less and less likely to come back to life.

Bill Nappo, principle of Grayhouse Partners, updates the Great Barrington Selectboard on his plan for Housatonic School at a June 24 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

A frustrated selectboard posed some challenging questions to Bill Nappo, the principal of Grayhouse Partners, and ultimately agreed to ask town manager Mark Pruhenski to explore other options and report back in two weeks.

Nappo met with the board back in February, but plans for funding and reuse of the town-owned building were incomplete so board members agreed to give Grayhouse a six-month extension. At that time, board members were clearly frustrated with the slow pace of the project. This week they declined to grant another extension.

By the time of Monday’s meeting, Nappo had made some progress finding sources for financing but it was not enough for the selectmen.

“I guess I’m having a hard time just seeing the reality of this. It’s aspirational,” said board member Leigh Davis. “I feel like I would like more of guarantee that you can actually move forward with financing it. It doesn’t give me a lot of feeling that this could happen.”

See video below of the discussion between Nappo and the selectboard concerning the redevelopment of the Housatonic School:

Nappo said, since the last meeting, the project has gained an additional $350,000 from the Community Preservation Committee, a town panel that allocates funds for several types of projects, including historic preservation. This is on top of the $300,000 Grayhouse was awarded last year.

And at the annual town meeting in May, taxpayers agreed to allocate $650,000 toward repairs, including a new roof, for the former Housatonic School, but only after an amendment was introduced to fund almost half of it using reserves rather than through borrowing.

Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis (at right), who is also development director for the Eagle Mill reuse project in Lee, told Nappo his project struck her as ‘aspirational’ more than anything else. At left are board members Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In response to a question from selectboard member Kate Burke, Nappo said even if his group purchased the building, the town would be responsible for remediating the asbestos and lead, a clean-up that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Beyond that, Nappo acknowledged all others were “potential sources” of funding and that he does not yet have any tenants lined up. He likened it to a “chicken-and-egg” situation, in that tenants are difficult to sign if he doesn’t have site control, but he can’t get site control unless he has a strong business plan that includes tenants.

Nappo has continued to pursue grants from other sources such as MassDevelopment and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is also talking with Lee Bank and Greylock Federal Credit Union about financing for a possible purchase of the building for $100,000. But under questioning, Nappo acknowledged that he has not yet provided the banks with personal financial statements.

This is the first time there has been talk of the town selling to Grayhouse. Previous discussions had centered only on a leasing arrangement. Nappo has also met with people in the office of Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and, “They’re on board with it and they will do everything they can to help me with this project to make it work for Housatonic and Great Barrington.”

Town manager Mark Pruhenski and Great Barrington Selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon listen to Grayhouse Partners principle Bill Nappo make his pitch at a June 24 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In the summer of 2017, Grayhouse put forward a proposal, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the town, for a “public-private partnership” for the building. The plan, the only one the town has so far received in the three most recent rounds of requests for proposals, calls for an adaptive reuse of the vacant 110-year-old school on Pleasant Street near the center of the historic Housatonic section of Great Barrington.

The proposal called for a mixed-use of the building that includes so-called business incubator spaces, and collaborative workspaces for technology and business. A small amount of housing on the upper floors is a possibility.

Grayhouse has also received the endorsement of the town historical commission. Click here to view a June 18 letter from commission Chairman Paul Ivory stating that the commissioners “strongly endorse Grayhouse Partners program to adaptively re-use the Housatonic School.”

“My concern is we’ve gone 18 months and we don’t have a tenant,” said selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon. “We don’t have anything but CPA funding from the town.”

The former Housatonic Elementary School overlooks the playground in center of the village of Housatonic. The school’s playground and lawn create what amounts to the village green. Photo: David Scribner

Selectman Ed Abrahams added that estimates for demolishing the building are in the neighborhood of $700,000, so even if the town does nothing it will be an expensive proposition.

With that, on a motion from Davis, the board voted unanimously to, in the words of Davis, “reboot” the process” and have Pruhenski present other options. One possibility is to approach the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, which responded to the original request for proposals several years ago.

Since it closed in 2005 after the Berkshire Hills Regional School District consolidated its community schools, the Housatonic School has had a controversial history. The CDC in 2013 proposed a mixed-use development that included 11 units of affordable housing, and commercial space including space for nonprofits and even a satellite office for police. But then-town manager Kevin O’Donnell put the kibosh on the proposal after strong community opposition. Click here to read an Edge story looking back at that time.

Pruhenski will report back to the selectboard at its Monday, July 8, meeting.

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