Belfast seizes $3.6M building for nonpayment of sewer bill

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 10:03 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — After the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped defaulted this summer on a $700 sewer bill, the city foreclosed on the nonprofit organization’s downtown property, which last was assessed in 2003 at $3.6 million.

While state statute allows for the building to automatically become the property of the municipality upon foreclosure, according to Belfast attorney Bill Kelly, a second step is required to obtain clear title.

City councilors believe that the former Crosby High School is in such disrepair after being unused for several years that on Tuesday they asked Kelly to pursue the legal action needed to secure unfettered title to the property.

“I think that the council is not in any way trying to take advantage of the automatic lien foreclosure process,” Bill Kelly said Friday. “It’s trying to continue a dialogue with the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped that can best be described as one of fits and starts, and getting them to acknowledge that they have a significant asset in the community and they need to maintain it.”

The theater workshop was founded in New York City in 1977 by Rick Curry, a Jesuit brother who wanted to provide the disabled with skills needed to pursue careers in professional theater. The Belfast campus was established as a seasonal adjunct to the group’s year-round Manhattan studio in 1996, when the city sold the building to NTWH for $200,000.

Curry invested an estimated $3.5 million into the building to convert it to a facility with theaters, lounges, a cafeteria, classrooms and apartments.

His longtime assistant, Jack Barry, said Friday from New York City that Curry, who now is a Jesuit priest, has been focusing his recent efforts on creating a “veterans academy” in Washington, D.C., for disabled veterans. Curry is selling NTWH’s New York City studio, but has not decided the fate of the Belfast building.

According to Barry, NTWH is still a concern and he disagrees that Belfast now owns the building. They received no legal notices about the impending foreclosure from the city, he said.

“We feel it’s a misunderstanding,” he said. “It’s something that we’re trying to work through with the city of Belfast.”

The organization’s Maine activities slowed in 2007, along with the national economy and its downturn in nonprofit giving, Barry said Friday. But in a 2005 Bangor Daily News article about the foreclosure auction of several other NTWH properties in Belfast, Curry said charitable donations started drying up after Sept. 11, 2001, when it became “hard to raise money for anything other than 9-11 victims.”

Barry said the Belfast building has been used for NTWH purposes within the last 18 months, that it’s in “terrific shape, frankly,” and that someone has cared for the exterior of the building every two weeks.

That viewpoint is sharply disputed by many in Belfast.

“They don’t mow the lawn. They don’t rake the leaves. They don’t pay their sewer bills,” said Councilor Michael Hurley. “If this was something in the back of the woods, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much to the city. But it’s right in the heart of downtown, and we want them to be responsive.”

According to Kelly, water has been turned off at the building for “a few years,” and City Manager Joe Slocum said in an e-mail that Belfast has come close to owning it for delinquent sewer bills several times in the past couple of years. Although NTWH sent a check to pay the sewer bill about a week ago, the council wasn’t satisfied.

“NTWH offered no plan for reopening the facility, addressing the growing mold problem or making any effort to assume responsibility for the building in the future,” Slocum wrote.

Barry gave permission this summer for city officials to enter the building and do an engineering review with the goal of possibly buying it back.

The engineers found that the building has significant problems, including inadequate ventilation, mold and a roof in disrepair, and estimated that it would cost $1.59 million to repair, according to a report on the city’s website.

“It was clearly an abandoned building,” Councilor Marina DeLune said. “It was damp. It was cold. And this was in the summertime.”

Kelly said Friday that he has not yet filed suit to gain title to the building and that he spoke just Thursday with NTWH attorney Mark Googins of Verrill Dana in Portland.

“Before I file suit, I expect to have further contact with the principals at NTWH,” Kelly said.

News of the foreclosure came as a surprise to NTWH board member Bob Kaliban of Garden City, N.Y. Although he is listed on the organization’s website as a board member, he said Thursday that since Curry left New York for Washington, D.C., a few years ago, both the board and the workshop have “literally been nonexistent.”

“I’m sorry that that’s happening,” Kaliban said of the foreclosure. “I know that things were not going as was anticipated.”

Although Curry’s work at the workshop and as an advocate for the disabled have won him national media attention in the past, NTWH’s future now appears uncertain.

One program alum wrote forlornly in 2009 on a Facebook page for NTWH.

“We need it back,” the man said. “What can I do to get this back, because it means the world to me. Can anyone help me?”

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