Published: 4/22/2019 7:14:37 AM
HEATH — The town will vote again on selling its former school to a cannabis company at its annual meeting May 11.
The school been vacant since it closed in 2017 due to low enrollment. The building went up for sale this year and received only one bid of $250,000 from cannabis company Carnegie Arch LLC to cultivate, manufacture, and possibly sell cannabis.
A “request for information” drew only two responses, from Carnegie and another marijuana company. But plans to sell the school hit a snag when residents narrowly vetoed an item to permit the Selectboard to sell or lease the school in March, with 95 in favor and 77 opposed. The item required a two-thirds majority to pass.
Two informational meetings were held this month to discuss the matter, with Carnegie Arch present at the first session. Selectboard member Gloria Cronin Fisher said she was impressed by the company’s plans, in particular its intent to establish a relationship with Heath.
“They were very personable, very knowledgeable. They answered any questions that anyone asked them. That helped a lot of people gain a better understanding,” Cronin Fisher said.
Two citizens groups have since formed to examine the issue – one focused on the sale, the other on alternatives like moving town offices to the school. Groups presented their findings at a public informational meeting held this month.
Bob Dane is part of the group assessing the financial benefits of selling the school. According to Dane, selling the school would provide a rare revenue source outside of property taxes.
If the sale goes ahead, the town would receive $250,000 from Carnegie plus $100,000 in leftover funds allocated by Mohawk Trail Regional School District when Heath Elementary closed. Also, the Finance Committee projected the annual revenue from a Host Community Agreement (state-mandated for marijuana companies) would generate $175,000 plus a local excise tax of $45,000.
The new company would also create about 20 to 30 new jobs, potentially available to residents. The jobs range from management, with a salary of $60,000 or more with benefits, to part-time, paying $14 to $22 per hour.
“We’ve been looking for an industry to come to town and there isn’t anything, and finally we have something great, really great,” Dane said. “We sorely need both the revenue and the jobs that they will bring the town.”
Dane’s group also addressed the issue of introducing a cannabis cultivation and production facility to the town, reminding residents that cannabis is legal in Massachusetts. The group said it is illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana or to use the substance in public. Also, members suggested ways to manage any potential increase in crime, by making police more visible and coordinating with Carnegie Arch’s security personnel.
The other citizens group reviewed potential impacts of both selling and keeping the school. Group member Steve Thane said the group narrowed options to four: keeping the school and relocating part of the town offices there; keeping the school and moving all of the town offices there plus the fire department; selling the school; and selling part of a town-owned property near the Fairgrounds to Carnegie Arch instead (this item was determined inviable).
Thane said the group had not come to any conclusions, and only sought to provide additional information. Part of its proposal suggested moving the fire station to the school property. Fire Lt.Tom Carlson said the fire station does not have running water and has space limitations. He suggested moving the fire department to the school property, building a new garage and housing offices in former classrooms.
“By erecting this new garage, we would have a new space that would be heated, insulated and have the right amount of space with a little room,” Carlson said.
Another group member Pam Porter said selling the building was a uniquely “difficult choice” as it was only recently built and is modern and accessible.
“If we sell the school ... we are selling the most modern, the most accessible, the most beautiful building in the town and one that can serve all of our space needs. So the fact is that we would have to give up so much to sell it,” Porter said.
Dane said that the group’s proposal to move some or all of the town’s offices and community hall to the school was not realistic and based on “sentimental attachments” to the building. The school is significantly larger than the combined area of the Town Hall and Community Hall. The school covers 25,400 square feet while Town Hall and Community Hall have a combined square-footage of 7,436. Both halls cost a combined $40,000 to maintain per year, while the school costs $74,000 to maintain annually.
Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna, who works at the Town Hall full-time, says the current municipal offices suffice and that she does not need more space. She also expressed some concern about moving town buildings from Heath’s historic center. Kovacs agreed, saying the Board of Health did not need any more space. But Porter said the town offices are aging and in need of some repairs, while the school building is new and modern.
Over the course of meetings and discussions about the school sale, some have questioned the amount submitted by Carnegie of $250,000, saying it is too low given the building’s cost $3 million to construct, and was only constructed in the mid-1990s.
The property was determined to be worth $150,000 to $500,000 by the local real estate firm Cohn & Company, Leistyna said.
Leistyna said she has watched the Selectboard and Finance Committee “work really hard” to create a manageable budget during her decade-long tenure working for Heath.
“Every year, it’s difficult because there are expenses beyond our control, or new expenses that come up,” Leistyna said.
She expressed support for bringing in a business to town that will generate revenue.
“Whatever that revenue is,” Leistyna said. “We really need it.”
The Annual Town Meeting is scheduled May 11, 9 a.m. at the former school, 18 Jacobs Road. Among agenda items is an article to permit the Selectboard to sell the former school.
Reach Grace Bird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.