BY MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
CONCORD — The Senate Finance Committee yesterday endorsed a proposal by state Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the panel, to lease the property on North Main Street that formerly housed the Laconia State School and Lakes Region Facility (prison) to a private party for use as a substance abuse treatment and recovery facility.
Cast as an amendment to House Bill 1695, the proposal carried the committee by a five-to-one vote, with state Sen. Andrew Hosmer (D-Laconia) the lone dissenter. The Senate will vote on the amended bill when it meets next week.
Forrester's proposal would appear to foreclose efforts by the city of Laconia to acquire the property, which it has pursued since 2011. However, the senator insisted yesterday that "My intent is not to hurt Laconia." She stressed "I've been trying to get the property back to Laconia."
Forrester, who followed the city's interest in the property for some time, said she was not aware that it was still contemplating acquiring the tract until Laconia Mayor Ed Engler spoke to the committee yesterday. "From our perspective," she said, "nothing was happening with the property."
The proposal would direct commissioners of the Department of Health and Human Services and Department Administrative Services "to develop and solicit a request for proposals for the private use of the Lakes Region Facility property in Laconia to provide comprehensive substance abuse treatment and recovery programs." The amendment provided that the request for proposals could include but not be limited to "long term lease purchase agreements, ground lease arrangements, or any other arrangements" considered viable.
Forrester's proposal would repeal the authorization to sell property included in the 2016-2017 state budget budget. The companion bill to the budget, directed the Department of Administrative Services to sell the property and the budget booked $2 million in revenue from the proceeds of the transaction. The sale would be subject to the requirements of RSA 4:40, the statute governing the sale or lease of state property, which stipulates that it must be first be offered to the municipality or county where it is located, but the sale would require the approval of only the governor and Executive Council.
Engler, who testified at the hearing in Concord, said that he told the Senate Finance Committee he was "puzzled" by the proposal, which he said appears to be at cross purposes with what the Legislature had done last year.
Engler said he told the senators that in December he and City Manager Scott Myers met with Michael Connor, deputy commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, who explained that the department would hire a broker and put the property on the open market for six months. The highest and best offer for the property would be taken as its market value and it would be offered to the city at that price. The city would have at least 30 days to match the offer.
Without speaking either for or against the amendment, he said he told the committee he did not understand it. He asked if the proposal applied to all or part of the property, but got no explanation. He said that when senators Chuck Morse (R-Salem), the president of the Senate, and Lou D'Alessandro (D-Manchester) suggested using the property for a treatment and recovery facility would benefit both the city and the state, he indicated that he was not convinced.
Engler said Alex Ray, owner and founder of the Common Man Family of Restaurants, spoke in support of the proposal before the Senate Finance Committee, demonstrating he was familiar with the property as well as committed to addressing the crisis of substance abuse.
Ray, who partnered with Rusty McLear of Hampshire Hospitality Holdings in developing the Hooksett Welcome Center, in which Forrester said her husband Keith invested, developed Webster Place Recovery Center in Franklin. Forrester said that Ray has approached Harbor Homes of Nashua, a nonprofit corporation providing housing, primary and behavioral health care and supportive services to the poor, homeless and disabled about the Laconia property.
Hosmer said that he will do what he can to scuttle the proposal. He said that the state has contaminated and abandoned the property, which has significant potential value to the city. He said the city should have the opportunity to acquire and redevelop the site. Failing that, he said that will offer an amendment to ensure that if the state retains ownership of the property, the city will play a role in its development.
Forrester said that she would support an amendment affording the city some authority over the development of the property.
The property consists of slightly less than 200 acres bounded by North Main Street to the east, Meredith Center Road and Eastman Road to the north and Ahern State Park to the west and south and divided roughly in half by Right Way Path. Among the 26 buildings on the site, an appraisal commissioned by the state found less than a handful salvageable.
Moreover, an initial environmental assessment of the site by Credere LLC of Westbrook, Maine, in 2010 indicated that there were typical but significant environmental concerns, most of them confined to the 75 acres housing most of the buildings. As the party responsible for the environmental contamination the state cannot qualify for federal funding to address it.
The state first sought to sell the property in 2011, offering it to the city for $10 million. However, soon afterward, two appraisals, one by the state and another by the city, found it was worth about a fifth that much. In April 2012, the Laconia City Council offered to purchase the property, together with the Robbie Mills Sports Complex and an abutting 10.2-acre parcel for $2.16 million. The state did not respond to the offer. The property has been on the open market ever since without fetching a single offer.
Meanwhile, the state spends approximately $330,000 annually to maintain and police the property, apart from the cost of any urgent repairs like the replacement of a failing roof.