Once heralded RiverSchool redevelopment of Searles School now in default, future uncertain
Great Barrington – Nearly four years ago, on Aug. 24, 2010, the future of downtown Great Barrington looked especially rosy.
The town was on verge of transferring one of its surplus properties – the Searles/Bryant school complex on Bridge Street – to a private development partnership whose plans and promises had mesmerized the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee.
After two years of wrangling and two notoriously contentious attempts to find a viable suitor for the former schools, the Board of Selectmen agreed to sell the school complex for $800,000 to the RiverSchool Development Group. RiverSchool had proposed to transform the former schools into a $19 million residential, commercial, and retail complex, bringing jobs and affordable housing (10 of 40 units to be in the affordable category), and expanding the downtown commercial center to the east.
RiverSchool Development was a partnership between Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC), and Philadelphia-based Canus Corporation, whose vice president Paul Rabinovitch attended the Aug. 24 board meeting. The arrangement between the development partners was that Canus had an 80 percent stake in the project, while Iredale and the CDC each had 10 percent.
The group had hired renowned architect Randy Croxton, admired for his cutting-edge, energy-efficient, award-winning design of the Audubon House in New York City, to create a development along the banks of the Housatonic River that would be elegant, functional and meet sustainable energy criteria.
The RiverSchool concept was selected over Arch Street Development’s $7.4 million Bridge Street Commons, an all-rental complex with some commercial space. Arch Street would have paid $515,000 of the purchase price upon closing, but had requested deferred tax payments and a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) status.
As a concession to the town, Arch Street had also offered to lease the property’s gymnasium back to the town for $1 a year, a feature of the school property popular with advocates for youth programs that took place in the gymnasium.
RiverSchool’s proposal, on the other hand, gave the town a $50,000 downpayment at closing, with remaining payments of $750,000 to be made at specified times. RiverSchool also predicted its project would bring in $2 million in tax revenues over 10 years and generate 135 permanent jobs.
To seal the deal, Iredale agreed to guarantee payment of the $800,000 purchase price, $640,000 of which was due on May 1.
The vote by selectmen was 4-1. RiverSchool had already received a unanimous endorsement from the Finance Committee.
The lone dissenter on the board was Selectman Margaret Beckwith who pronounced: “The money isn’t coming right up front, and I think the design is terrible.”
Still, the rest of the board was enthusiastic.
“This is a very, very big deal,” gushed Selectman Alan Inglis, after the board voted. “We’ve made a lynchpin decision about the future of Great Barrington, which will determine what the town will look like and become over the next decades. I’m so delighted with this decision that I’m pinching myself to make sure it really happened.”
Even fiscal conservative George Beebe jumped on the bandwagon: “We have a second chance, and I hope we get it right,” he declared. “Most towns would kill for a local proposal like this, providing so many opportunities for young people.”
And after his effusive statement, Karen Smith remarked: “This may be the only time I’ll ever agree with George Beebe.”
At least, that came true.
For since that moment four years ago, others have been pinching themselves, too, but in disbelief that what appeared to be such a glorious, comprehensive concept for the property should have – or could have –vanished like a mirage.
The property is now in default, as RiverSchool failed to make the final payment of $640,000 that was due May 1, an amount guaranteed by Iredale Mineral Cosmetics as part of the original sales agreement. The town has issued a notice of default, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin informed the Selectboard.
Ironically, Iredale had already paid Canus $150,000 to buy out Canus’s interest in the Bryant Elementary School parcel which Iredale is now in the process of remodeling into the company’s world headquarters.
Meanwhile, Rabinovitch had been quietly trying to flip his remaining interest in the property, meeting with Berkshire Coop Executive Director Art Ames earlier this year to see whether the first floor of the Searles School would be suitable for the planned expansion of the Coop. As part of that reconfiguration, the Red Lion Inn was exploring the creation of a boutique hotel on the second floor of Searles.
“The parties for RiverSchool are in discussion,” Tabakin said of the efforts to recapture the $640,000. “They will have to come to us.”
“We are currently working with town officials on a resolution to the matter which will allow us to develop the property in a responsible manner that will create an exciting economic development opportunity for the town of Great Barrington and also fits with the social and cultural values of our town,” wrote Iredale CFO Robert Montgomery, in a prepared statement about the RiverSchool circumstances. “In 2008, when Riverschool LLC was formed and began searching for development partners and opportunities it was during one of the lowest points in the global economy and across the world seen in decades. Now, as the economy has begun to recover in the last couple of years, so too has development interest in Searles and we are currently in active conversations with a number of potential development partners.
“Iredale Mineral Cosmetics is about to complete our new Global Headquarters building at the former Bryant School. Bryant will be the gem of our three- building corporate campus in Great Barrington and we look forward to helping guide a development next door at Searles which will complement our investment in Great Barrington.”
“The terms of the repayment may be able to be renegotiated,” commented Selectboard Vice Chair Sean Stanton, who was a selectman in 2010. “But not the amount to be repaid.”
It’s not the first time – nor likely the last – that the town fathers and mothers have been seduced by visions of economic development in dormant or abandoned buildings. Think of Miami-based entrepreneur Stephen Muss and his scheme to convert Monument Mills in Housatonic into a flourishing residential and commercial hub a few years back. Or think of the torment to finalize the sale of the Castle Street firehouse, that may or may not be converted to a vocational culinary institute.
And one can only wonder what fate awaits the vacant Housatonic Elementary School, the object of so many studies and community aspirations. The Selectboard plans to issue a new request for proposals.