Belfast’s Letter of the Law

Posted Dec. 02, 2010, at 10:35 p.m.

When King Solomon ruled that a baby should be cut in half, he knew the true mother would reveal herself by conceding to the other woman. City officials in Belfast face a less dramatic dilemma, but one just as nettlesome. The nonprofit organization that purchased the former high school has failed to pay its sewer bill; the municipality’s lien against the $3.5 million property for this $700 debt has matured, meaning the city can foreclose on it.

This valuable asset can’t be cut in half; either the city will own it or the nonprofit will regain it. Both outcomes are fraught with undesirable consequences.

The building is the former Crosby High School, the city high school from 1923 until 1965 and then a junior high until 1993. The graceful, three-story brick building is in the heart of the city’s downtown.

After a new middle school was built, the school reverted to the city, which sold it for $200,000 to the New York-based National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. NTWH’s charismatic founder and director, Jesuit Brother Rick Curry, described to city officials his vision for bringing physically handicapped adults to the facility in the summer months to study theater arts. The community would be able to see plays performed by the students, and the building, which was in bad shape, would be restored.

Brother Curry, himself disabled, delivered what he promised. With the help of benefactors, the building was restored and converted into a combination dormitory, student union and classroom facility with performance spaces. NTWH hosted young adults from all over the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Their presence enhanced downtown life, and residents learned about those who struggle with physical challenges.

But NTWH hit hard times and lost some of its other Belfast properties to bank foreclosure. For the last several years, the Crosby building has been empty. An inspection conducted on behalf of the city in July found a host of maintenance problems. City officials say NTWH has been unresponsive to their concerns about maintenance.

Last month, the city discovered the unpaid sewer bill had led to a lien against the property, which had matured.

For those working to establish a performing arts center in town, city ownership could be a dream come true. But if the city forecloses, it will likely face a costly, protracted legal challenge from NTWH. If it returns the building to the nonprofit, even if it extracts payment of bills and concessions about maintenance, a precedent may be set. Does this mean residents can stop paying property taxes for years and settle up later?

A viable, active NTWH was good for the city, but all evidence suggests the organization no longer has the resources to continue in Belfast. A distressed sale to the city may be the best way out for both.

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