Cooperative leadership to maintain quality of life at Briarcrest Estates

LACONIA — "We cannot drop below the standard set by the Mooneys," said Orry Gibbs, president of the Lakemont Cooperative, which purchased Briarcrest Estates from Mark and Ruth Mooney in April. "Our goal is is to change as little as possible and then only to make improvements. We're not taking any steps backward."

The cooperative was formed a year ago when the Mooneys accepted an offer from Hometown America Corporation to buy the manufactured housing park for $10 million. State law requires park owners to consider a matching offer from a tenants' cooperative and negotiate in good faith. The impending sale divided the tenants between those aligned with the cooperative and an apparent majority preferring commercial ownership. When the Mooneys asked the Belknap County Superior Court to sanction a sale to Hometown America, a group of tenants supported their request. However, the Mooneys ultimately chose to withdraw their suit and sell to the cooperative.

Gibbs, who straddled the fence for much of the controversy before deciding to support Mooneys, said yesterday that the tension and acrimony among tenants has largely dissipated. "There is a positive, friendly atmosphere in the park and I think the community spirit has increased," she said.

With 241 units, Briarcrest Estates is the third largest manufactured housing park in the state. Gibbs said that 173 of the 240 current households have joined the cooperative and membership is steadily rising. She said that all new tenants are required to join the cooperative.

Gibbs, who has lived at Briarcrest for the past 22 years, heads a seven member board of directors elected by the members of cooperative at its annual meeting. "We are a multi-million dollar corporation," she said, likening the role of the board to that of a large commercial enterprise.

At the same time, the cooperative operates much like a small town, with the directors analogous to the selectmen and members, or households, in aggregate acting as a town meeting. The directors, she explained oversee the management and operation of the park and, recommend introducing policies and amending bylaws to the members for their approval.

The board includes four members of the interim board initially convened by the cooperative to pursue and complete the acquisition of the park. Vice-president, Kathleeen Bateson, the administrator of Merrimack County, where she oversees an $81-million budget, brings 40 years of experience and knowledge in municipal and county government to the board. Unlike Gibbs, Bateson was among the leaders of the cooperative from the outset, but although the two began on opposite sides, they have become close colleagues and fast friends.

Bateson also chairs the Finance Committee, which includes Kevin Kelly, a retired banker. "We are fortunate to have a very competent group of directors," said Bateson, who has lived in the park for 16 years.

The cooperative engaged Foxfire Property Managment, Inc. of Concord, which manages some 1,400 residential properties in northern New England, to manage the day-to-day operations of the park. Gibbs said that Foxfire collects the rents and manages the finances, reporting to the board each each month. The firm has dedicated two of its employees to Briarcrest. In addition, personnel from the ROC (Resident Owned Communities) program of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which assisted the cooperative in acquiring the park, provide advice and counsel. "I think we're in terrific hands," Gibbs said.

Apart from the finance committee, there are panels to consider bylaws, oversee operations, manage the community center, coordinate social activities, shepherd prospective tenants and serve the membership.

Bateson said that the annual budget is approximately $1-million, of which $677,000 represents debt service on the $10-million financing package to purchase the park. The operating budget is about $200,000 and another $60,000 is designated for capital improvements, including equipment purchases. The balance represents a project surplus. The membership unanimously endorsed the budget proposed by the board of directors.

Bateson said that the major question overshadowing the budget is the reassessment of the land value the park following the transfer of ownership, which will determine the 2014 property tax commitment. While the budget was adopted in June, the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration will not confirm the assessed value until October.

Gibbs said that the budget includes a projected rent increase of $10, which is less than the last increase set by the Mooneys. She anticipated similar increases for the next seven or eight years until the principal and interest payments diminish when the board expects to reduce or even forego an increase. "It is a minimal increase," she said, "and we intend to keep rent increases as low as possible."

Nevertheless, Gibbs said that the cooperative has "substantial financial obligations and must be run like a business. Not a cold business," she continued. "We will be attentive to the members, but we do have to make money to ensure that as costs rise, the quality of the park and our services do not change."