BELFAST, Maine — Penobscot Community Health Care has finalized a $7 million deal to purchase the former Bank of America complex off Route 3 in Belfast.
The transaction is major, with the property incorporating a 142-acre campus and seven buildings with 316,000 square feet of office space. The purchase means that Seaport Community Health Care Center in Belfast, which is part of PCHC, will be able to grow. More than that, though, the nonprofit organization is looking to use its new location to increase access to health care and fill wellness gaps in the community, although it’s at the early stages of figuring out what that will look like.
“It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity, for us and the whole community,” Lori Dwyer, the president and chief executive officer of Penobscot Community Health Care, the largest federally qualified health center in Maine, said Tuesday. “We really see ourselves as part of the community economic development plan.”
The sale is expected to breathe new life into a complex that once served as an economic engine for the region but has grown much quieter since its heyday in the early 2000s.
“We have lots of thoughts,” Dwyer said. “We’re exploring and researching the kind of aligned services that will be a good fit for that campus. None of this is definitive. I can’t emphasize enough how much input we’ll be seeking from the community.”
The organization, which announced in July that it was under contract to purchase the campus, had a virtual real estate closing on Friday. It bought the property from current owner STAG IV Belfast LLC, part of real estate investment company Stag Capital of Boston. Prior to that, it was owned by Bank of America, which acquired it after buying MBNA in 2005.
Right now, PCHC’s firm plans for the campus revolve around Building 5, a 72,000- square foot structure which will be renovated to be the new home for Seaport Community Health Center. The health center, which has 8,000 patients, now operates in a leased, 11,800- square foot building at 53 Schoodic Drive in Belfast, around the corner from the new property. It offers primary care, mental health services, recovery services, a pharmacy and more, and is “bursting at the seams,” according to officials, who said it needs to more than double its size to meet current and future needs.
There’s more than enough space in the new building, where the practice will occupy the first floor, with the second floor reserved for PCHC administrative and other uses. The organization has secured a federal grant to help with the renovations of the building, Dwyer said. Future services offered there will include dental care and expanded mental health and recovery programs.
The largest structure, Building 8, will continue to be occupied by Bank of America.
As for the development of the rest of the vacant office space and large campus, time will tell, she said. Ideas so far include a child care center and senior services.
“I think the broader vision is focused on community wellness,” Dwyer said, adding that the organization plans to work cooperatively with other health care providers such as Waldo County General Hospital. “We want to work with them and work with other people to identify what’s missing. We want to fill in the gaps.”
Whatever happens, the campus is likely to look quite different than it did 20 years ago. At the height of MBNA’s Belfast operations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the company employed about 3,000 people there as debt collectors, call center workers and more, a number that equaled nearly half of the population of the midcoast city.
But things changed when Bank of America moved in. That company’s much smaller workforce no longer needed the acres of climate-controlled cubicles, and sold part of the campus to Massachusetts-based athenahealth. The rest of the holdings eventually were sold to STAG IV.
With some of the buildings empty or underused, the changing real estate reality led to a years-long dispute between STAG IV and the city of Belfast about the tax valuation for the property. In 2015, the city valued the property at $41 million, but after the city and the investment company came to an agreement in 2018, the assessed value has dropped to about a quarter of that sum.
STAG IV has remained one of the city’s largest property taxpayers, nonetheless, paying $261,039 to Belfast last year.
In 2019, the company tried to sell the property at auction, with bids starting at just $1.8 million, but its reserve wasn’t met so it wasn’t sold.
Dwyer said that because her organization has a for-profit tenant at the property, the general rule that nonprofit organizations are exempt from paying property taxes does not apply to the property as a whole.
She and others at the health care organization are looking forward to moving forward with renovations and plans.
“We’re just excited,” she said. “It’s a nice bright spot in the midst of this very gloomy pandemic.”