BELFAST, Maine — As the new owner of the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped building on Church Street, the city of Belfast is deeply vested in its future.
That is why city officials are working cooperatively with the building’s last owners — the nonprofit theater organization — with the strong hopes that they will repair the deteriorating three-story former high school and maintain it.
“As it belongs to the city today, we feel we have an obligation to the broader Belfast community to make sure it is not in the abandoned position it has been in for the last 2½ years,” Belfast City Manager Joseph Slocum said Friday. “What we fear is that the abandonment will get worse.”
The city foreclosed on the former Crosby High School on Church Street last fall after the theater workshop defaulted on a $700 sewer bill. The property last was assessed in 2003 at $3.6 million.
Slocum said that he had gone into the building recently with a video camera to document the state of its interior.
“There’s real mold in that place. On furniture, on rugs, on tile floors, on cabinets,” he said. “There’s no question it’s there. It isn’t going to get any better until somebody deals with it.”
The city manager said that since the foreclosure, Belfast’s communication with National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped officials has improved significantly, and he expects repair work to commence in two weeks.
“Overall, we’ve had some positive and constructive dialogue,” he said. “The city was never out to take this building away from its owners for $700.”
If the workshop can repair and maintain the building and once again mount performances there, that would be “great,” according to the city manager.
“We just don’t want to see it rot,” he said.
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 year-round Manhattan studio in 1996, when the city sold the building to NTWH for $200,000.
Curry, who has since become a Jesuit priest, invested an estimated $3.5 million into the building. The nonprofit’s aims have shifted in recent years with Curry now focusing his efforts on helping disabled veterans in Washington, D.C.
Efforts last week and this weekend to reach Jack Barry, a spokesman for the NTWH and Curry’s longtime assistant, were unsuccessful. The city manager said that his conversations with Barry have led him to believe that NTWH right now has not determined what role the Crosby school will play in its future efforts to help the handicapped.
In an e-mail from Nov. 24 sent to the Bangor Daily News, Barry said that the workshop has been proud of the work it has done in Belfast.
“We are disappointed that our relationship with the city has turned into a legal one rather than one of cooperation and trust,” he wrote. “We hope to work closely with the city of Belfast to regain that former relationship and work toward our common goal — to make Belfast the best city it can possibly be for its residents.”
Belfast city councilors last fall expressed their concerns with the state of the building, which engineers over the summer found has mold and inadequate ventilation. They determined that it would cost $1.59 million to repair. Before the report, the city had potentially been interested in buying back the building, possibly to use as a community civic center, but Slocum said that the repairs would be too expensive for Belfast to undertake.
However, he sounded more optimistic than he did last fall regarding the building’s care.
“We are working with NTWH to find a way whereby they will step back in and come back and maintain the building that once was in their name,” he said. “The city sought to preserve an asset that had really gone unattended for too long. Because we have the title, this is our one ability to sit there and say, this must be done.”