BERLIN — The city received two preliminary proposals for reuse of the former Brown School property and both call for converting the building into apartments.
New England Family Housing/TKB Properties of Berlin and Wildcat LLC of Jackson responded to the request for preliminary proposals issued by the city earlier this fall. Both companies have done work in the city.
Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme outlined the proposals to the city council Monday night.
New England Family Housing proposes renovating the building into approximately 20 one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. Twelve apartments, including handicap accessible units, would be located on the Eighth Street addition side, three apartments would be in the basement, three on the first floor, and three on the top floor. The proposal said that would allow the developer to keep the exterior of the building intact as well as the interior stairwells and hallways.
The outside paved area would be repaved and striped to provide parking spots for each apartment. The existing chain-link fence along Main Street would be removed and replaced with something more aesthetically compatible with the riverwalk project.
New England Family Housing renovated the former Bartlett School into apartments and the proposal noted there is still a need for renovated, energy efficient apartments as well as handicap accessible apartments. It said the Brown apartments would be attractive to people looking to downsize and move into maintenance-free apartments.
The proposal said the project would be costly, and New England Family Housing would be looking for substantial grant funds as well as the firm’s private capital to finance. The developer would look for the city to donate the Brown School to the project.
The company noted it formed a public-private partnership with the city in 2009 to renovate 19 buildings under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Since then, New England Family Housing has renovated four other buildings, the Bartlett School, and redeveloped 197 Main St. property on its own. In addition, the proposal noted the company still owns and manages all of its properties.
The proposal from Fred Dambrie of Wildcat LLC calls for converting the school into 17 apartments with amenities to include a fitness center for the residents and a storage unit for each apartment. Wildcat LLC said it expected some of the apartments would be reserved for furnished Airbnb or VRBO units and short-term rentals for traveling doctors and nurses from the Androscoggin Valley Hospital.
Dambrie said he spoke to White Mountains Community College president about leasing the basketball court for use by the college. He said the basketball court would also function as an event center for seminars, political events, possible trade shows, theater presentations and general meetings.
Also part of the proposal is space for a coffee shop/cafe.
Wildcat’s proposal said the complex will include spectacular views of the Androscoggin River with a proposed crosswalk direct from the building to the city’s planned riverwalk.
Dambrie said the project would take 18 to 20 months to complete and he would use local contractors and tradespeople. He said initial discussions with Sonny Couture of Couture Construction estimated construction costs at $50,000 to $60,000 per unit.
Included with Wildcat’s proposal was a letter from the president of cPort Credit Union, verifying the credit union would be pleased to provide the necessary financing for the Brown School project. Also included were two letters of reference including one from former North Country State Sen. John Gallus.
A retired Air National Guard fighter interceptor pilot and Delta Air Lines captain, Dambrie said he formed the real estate development and construction company, Dambrie-Pizzo, Inc. in 1976, which has done major housing and commercial development projects in the Portland, Maine, area.
In 2006, he formed Wildcat, LLC and that company has invested over $1.6 million in the rehabilitation and renovation of eight apartment buildings in Berlin with a total of 32 units.
Dambrie said all his developments are upscale in both form and functionality.
Under both proposals, the building and property would pay property taxes.
Laflamme reminded the council that the city formed a Brown School committee to develop the request for proposals and to review the proposals that were received. She said three members of the council, Peter Higbee, Lucie Remillard and Diana Berthieume, were on the committee.
Laflamme said the committee favored the Wildcat LLC proposal on a vote of 6-2.
Higbee said the New England Family Housing proposal calls for it to go after Community Development Block Grant funding, which would require low-to-moderate income housing. He said he feels the city has sufficient amount of that housing but lacks more up-scale apartments.
He said he believes Wildcat’s vision for the property fits in better with the surrounding neighborhood.
Berthiaume agreed with the need for some more upscale housing in the city. She also pointed out that Wildcat was willing to buy the building. Remillard said she liked Wildcat’s plans for a community center. She said she felt the developer was really looking to invest and spruce up the area.
Mayor Paul Grenier said he agreed with the committee’s recommendation. He said New England Family Housing came in at the right time for the type of housing it develops. He said he felt the city was ready to now develop some housing at the next level.
Before the committee makes a final recommendation, Grenier suggested it request conceptual architectural plans so it has a visual document. Once the committee is comfortable, he said the city manager can go forth with negotiating the transfer of ownership. Any money received from the sale of the property, the mayor said should go to the school department.
Remillard said Wildcat should do a conceptual presentation to the planning board and council to get specific feedback.
The school building totals 25,416 square feet and structure is over 100 years old. The school department closed the school at the end of the 2018-19 school year.