FRANKLIN — As Gilford resident Todd Workman plods away at turning his dream vision of Franklin into a reality, he got a reality check when he was forced to attend a hearing in the Belknap County Superior Court Tuesday to answer a request by the city to address potential life-safety hazards in the Buell's Block building, downtown.
Specifically, the city wants a court injunction ordering unfettered access to the building for its own code enforcement team to inspect and to stop Workman from renting any more commercial units or apartment spaces until all of the necessary repairs are completed.
According to court filings and e-mails between the city and Workman, the city has tried repeatedly to get the former owner of the building that sits in a prominent spot on Central Street to address many different building code violations.
The Daily Sun has learned that just before Workman and his partners purchased the building, the town was working on a similar injunction aimed at the previous owner of Buell's Block. The injunction is to get whoever owns the building to make the necessary repairs.
Buell's Block is one key to Workman's vision of turning the distraught downtown area into a vibrant hub of activity using environmentally-, artistic-, and locally-centered resources.
To this end, he has acquired partial interests in many other downtown buildings through leases and partial ownerships. He said on Wednesday that he envisions himself as being a catalyst to get Franklin's revival started by obtaining enough interest in a "critical mass" of buildings, fixing them up, bringing in new and environmentally friendly businesses and hoping the trend spreads.
As to Buell's Block, Workman said he bought the building at a foreclosure sale and had no idea the previous owner had some possible structural, code violations, and life-safety issues with it.
However, a time-line provided to The Daily Sun by City Planner Richard Lewis said the first notice of violation was sent on May 9, 2014 to Central Ventures, Inc. the former owner of the building. On the same day, Workman was the highest bidder at a foreclosure action.
On May 27, 2014 Franklin City Attorney Paul Fitzgerald spoke with Workman on the telephone about the code violations and followed up his conversation with a letter. On May 30, Buell's Block, LLC acquired the building by foreclosure deed.
In his May 27, 2014 letter, Fitzgerald told Workman that the city viewed his purchase of the block as a positive development and "not as an opportunity to simply rehash old code issues with a new owner."
Fitzgerald also told Workman "the city stands ready to work with you and other property owners in taking reasonable steps to bring some downtown properties 'back from the brink' and restore economic opportunity and vitality to the area."
According to the relief sought by the city, it also wanted Workman (and the prior owner) to employ a structural engineer to examine the building and determine if it was safe and identify structural flaws. Workman set his own deadline of January 15, 2015 and when that day came and went, the city filed its injunction request.
In a letter sent to City Planner Richard Lewis dated March 4, Workman said he had hired two structural engineers who did a site visit and evaluation. He said their subsequent report noted "the existing building condition did not pose an imminent threat to public safety," and the recommendations for repair were discussed with him.
The report was sent from the engineers to Workman on March 6 but it is not known when the city received it. After a brief court hearing on Tuesday, Franklin City Attorney Paul Fitzgerald said yesterday that the two sides spent most of the afternoon negotiating the timing of the repairs and the access to the building and have reached an oral agreement that Fitzgerald expects will be put in writing within the next few day.
Before Tuesday's hearing Fitzgerald performed some shuttle diplomacy between the two parties in court on Wednesday and told Judge James O'Neill at the hearing that they were very close to reaching an accord and the agreement, if it happens, will be filed with the court early next week at the latest.
For his part, O'Neill wanted to know why this case was filed in Belknap County when, in his opinion, it should have been filed in Merrimack County.
Fitzgerald said that when the case against Workman and Buell's Block LLC first started, the company had a physical address of Lake Shore Road in Gilford.
Woodman's attorney, Steve Solomon said Workman reserves the right to change the venue if the case can't be resolved outside of court.
Workman has been touted as a visionary extraordinaire in the Concord Monitor and the Boston Globe — each of which has published recent human interest stories about him and his plans for Franklin.
According to one Franklin insider, the problem is that Workman doesn't apparently have any money and has not effectively pitched his vision of the city to those who do.
"He can talk 'till he's blue in the face to get civic organizations and city leaders to believe in his vision, but now he has to start talking to the people who can financially make it happen," said the same man.
"We're already sold on the ideas," he added. But the town is not in a position to financially assist a developer with projects that would benefit a private person.
When asked about grants, he said there are very few of them that will assist with the kind of development that is in Workman's vision.
Speaking to those comments, Workman told The Daily Sun he has one partner who has signed a letter of intent to invest $9 million in the Riverbend Mill that will generate $70,000 to $80,000 in income for the Franklin Downtown TIF (tax increment financing) District. He said the intent is to create "workforce" housing — not low-income, so-called Section 8, housing.
Workman had applied for a $340,000 grant from ArtPlace America but the finalists for the 2015 awards do not include his Franklin proposal.
He agreed there is very little money in grants for his ideas and knows first hand the city is in no position to help him financially. He said the property values in Franklin are so low that the income that can be raised under the property tax cap is not enough to operate a city the size of Franklin. He also noted that with the town of Hill pulling out of the Franklin School District, finding to money to run it and the city is going to present a real challenge to the cap.
But he remains optimistic and said he has a number of irons in the fire — some of which are in the Federal Home Loan Bank in Boston and with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Workman and Colby-Sawyer College are working together and have created a class centered on Franklin's many redevelopment plans since the 1960s and the obstacles to implementing them.
He said one of his immediate obstacles is the property values are so depressed in Franklin that he is having a hard time getting people to agree to spend the money needed to rehabilitate and transform the properties.
Using Riverbend Mill as an example, he said it was very difficult to get an investor to agree to spend $9 million on a building whose value is below $5 million, even though once fixed up, the old mill will likely be worth much that the $9-million investment.
As for what's in it for him, Workman said he loved living in Franklin and saw that the tiny and compact downtown area was ripe for something. He said he sold his home in Franklin to partially finance his vision so he does have plenty of skin in the game.
"I am a catalyst — I get paid back for my investment and a little for my pocket," he said.