BELFAST, Maine — After seizing the deteriorating National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped building on Church Street last summer for the nonpayment of a $700 sewer bill, the city of Belfast this week decided to return the structure to the nonprofit organization that had owned it.
Officials said their tough-love approach to what they perceived to be the abandonment of a major downtown landmark has worked, citing the theater organization’s efforts this spring to repair and maintain the three-story former Crosby High School. The Belfast City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to return the title to the theater group.
“We never had any intention of depriving a nonprofit of their resources for $700. We never did,” City Manager Joseph Slocum said Wednesday. “But we saw the building in disrepair, being vandalized and unattended to and with broken windows. We said, ‘Look, we want to be reasonable. But we want you to be reasonable, too.’”
The workshop was founded by Rick Curry in 1977 in New York City to provide professional theater skills to the disabled. The group established a Belfast branch in 1996 as a seasonal adjunct, and purchased the former school from the city for $200,000.
Curry, who has since become a Jesuit priest, invested an estimated $3.5 million in the building, according to the organization. It was last assessed by the city in 2003 at $3.6 million.
A few years ago, activity at NTWH-Crosby began to taper off, as Curry shifted the nonprofit’s focus toward helping disabled veterans in Washington, D.C.
Then, last year the building became the property of the city of Belfast as per the state’s automatic lien foreclosure statute, city attorney Bill Kelly explained in an email sent to the BDN on Thursday. He said title to the property automatically transferred to the city of Belfast after the theater workshop failed to pay its assessments in a timely fashion after a lien for the sewer bill was filed in the registry of deeds.
“When nobody’s answering the phone and nobody’s paying the bills, bad things can happen,” Slocum said.
If the city had wanted to use or sell the building, it could have filed a suit to “perfect” its title, the attorney said, which means asking a judge to order that the foreclosure had happened in a timely fashion.
But that’s not what the city wanted, according to Slocum, who said that after the foreclosure, communication significantly improved between Belfast and NTWH officials.
“They have responsibly stepped forward. They have cleaned up the building, mowed the lawn, done mold remediation and fixed broken windows. They now have a regular caretaker,” the city manager said. “Based upon that, the city is now prepared to get the title back in their hands.”
Efforts this week to reach Jack Barry, a spokesman for NTWH and Curry’s longtime assistant, were unsuccessful. Slocum said Barry has been the city’s primary contact with the group.
“We’re happy and we think they’re happy,” Slocum said.
The city manager wasn’t sure if NTWH officials intend to use the building again or sell it. But he’s very hopeful that the questions that plagued him and the councilors last summer will not be asked again.
“I would like to go through a whole summer and not have citizens calling me up and saying, ‘Can’t you get them to mow that hayfield?’” Slocum said. “Last August, I really panicked. And I’m really glad, the way it worked out.”