HAMPDEN, Maine — The Town Council approved Monday night the purchase of Hampden Academy and its surrounding property from the SAD 22 board of directors.
Though the town has no firm plans for the property, local officials say they hope to turn it over to a developer and ultimately see it become part of the property tax base.
Under the offer councilors approved, the town will acquire the buildings that make up Hampden Academy and the 23-acre parcel on which they sit in exchange for $86,000 payable over three years and 65 acres of town-owned land adjacent to the campus of the new $51.6 million high school, which is scheduled to open this fall.
About 45 of those 65 acres already serve as wetland mitigation for the new school’s construction and will have to remain that way, though some in the community are looking to acquire grant money to build recreational trails on parts of that parcel.
In describing some of the highlights of the deal, Mayor Janet Hughes said that once the town owns the property, it will seek a developer. Most of the buildings, including five portable classrooms, will be demolished.
The oldest section of Hampden Academy — which dates back to 1843 and is listing on the National Register of Historic Places — will be preserved she said, adding, “For those of you who are wondering, the Bronco [statue in front of the school] will stay.”
The fate of the newest structure, the gymnasium known as the Skehan Center, remained unknown Monday night and likely will be decided by whoever redevelops the site. Several councilors said they hoped a use would be found for that building.
The decision to buy the soon-to-be-vacated high school campus, however, was not unanimous. It came down to a 4-2-1 vote, with Mayor Hughes and Councilors Thomas Brann, Jean Lawlis and Shelby Wright in favor, Councilors Andre Cushing and Jeremy Williams abstaining, and Councilor Kristen Hornbrook casting the sole opposing vote.
Hornbrook expressed concerns about the amount of money involved and said the decision was one that should be made by voters. She also noted that the purchase meant that the town would be assuming responsibility for maintaining the buildings until the site is redeveloped.
Cushing offered to recuse himself after Hornbrook raised concerns about what she believed to be a potential conflict of interest. Hornbrook said she was not aware until an executive session last week that Cushing owns land that abuts the 65 acres being transferred to SAD 22.
Cushing, however, said the land in question belongs to a family trust and that he is only a minority owner.
Asked for an opinion, Thomas Russell, the town’s legal counsel, said that he did not believe a conflict existed. He said that as he interpreted the council’s code of ethics, Cushing did not stand to gain money or any other benefit from the transaction.
In the interest of moving the school deal along, Cushing’s recusal was approved by fellow councilors. Williams also was permitted to abstain because Monday’s meeting was only the second in his council career.
The entire 65 acres would be available for educational opportunities and use, such as nature exploration and science classrooms, while about 20 of the 65 acres could be used for potential expansion or further wetland mitigation.
“We’ve … looked at a variety of options, starting with potential educational usage of the academy,” said SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons. “I have a good feeling that this will be approved. I think this is the most advantageous option for all three communities served by Hampden Academy and the new school.”
The offer, which was crafted by an ad hoc school board committee working with Hampden councilors, comes after four years of efforts by the board, the council, and other civic and school officials to evaluate potential reuse of the property once the new high school opens.
Payments from the town will come from the landfill host community account and will be allocated to the SAD 22 general fund to support educational programming.
“We have worked in concert with municipal leaders from Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport in arriving at this offer to the town, and look forward to what will come next for this important property in the center of Hampden,” said Kelly Bickmore, the SAD 22 board’s chairwoman. “We negotiated this proposal with town officials, and we examined several different options, so we’re happy that it seems to be very close to nearing completion.”
The 23-acre tract upon which Hampden Academy sits was offered to the town by the board last fall for $386,100. But while Maine Valuation Co. of Standish pegged the property’s fair market value at $1 million, it was also estimated that demolition costs for the old school could be as high as $1 million to $1.5 million, making it a money-losing proposition to purchase the property.
Hampden Academy has been a school for more than 200 years.
The council’s decision to acquire the property, which occupies a prominent location in the town’s center, came less than a week after the SAD 22 board completed its offer.
Over the next several weeks, members of the Town Council’s planning and development committee and the town manager will draft a purchase-and-sale agreement to be signed by town councilors and school committee members.
“We wanted to take the time to come up with the best possible outcome for Hampden Academy’s reuse and the new school, and I think we’ve come up with a real win-win resolution,” said Bickmore, who attended Monday night’s meeting along with board Vice Chairman Roland Narofsky and Superintendent Rick Lyons.