Ahead of auction, House candidate eyes conserving USA Springs property

Opponents of USA Springs should come together, buy the company at bankruptcy auction next month, and retire its permit to pump 300,000 gallons of groundwater out of the ground, said Romeo Danais, a Nottingham investor, organic farmer and candidate for state representative.”If you can’t beat them, buy them out,” said Danais, a partner of Danais Realty Group Inc., a Manchester-based commercial real estate firm that he owns with his younger brother Richard Danais, a former State Senator.Danais said he is attempting to do just that: purchase the three parcels totaling 188 acres in Nottingham and Barrington, sell a conservation easement for most of it, and develop a small strip along Route 4 where a partially finished bottling plant now sits.He says he has $180,000 pledged to the effort so far, about a tenth of what he figures the property is worth without the permits and water business that USA Springs had hoped to develop.USA Springs, headed by Francesco Rotondo, has spent millions over nearly a decade getting those permits, despite the heated opposition of many of the residents.The company filed for bankruptcy at the end of June 2008, and has been trying to get financing ever since. After the latest deal — a $60 million loan from a Swiss financier –went sour, attorneys put the company up to auction on July 20.Lawyers for the estate have always contended that the value in the company lies in its ability to withdraw and bottle water, and its deals with overseas customers. They have hired an attorney — State Rep. Tony Soltani — for the sole purpose of preserving those permits through the bankruptcy auction process.Opponents, however, contend that most of the permits have expired, and that renewing them won’t be easy, and will certainly be challenged in court.Danais contends that this will scare off most investors and that the money opponents could spend in litigation could be better used to buy the property, which is being auctioned off free and clear of any liens.The half-finished 176,000-square-foot building is an “albatross,” even if it still structurally sound after being exposed to the elements for four years. In order to market that strip along Rt. 4 properly, he said, it will need to be built to the specifications of a particular buyer.”The only value I see it is the dirt,” he said, which he estimated is worth about $1.8 million. USA Springs’ largest creditor, Roswell Commercial Mortgage, said that it is owed about $10 million on its mortgage on the property, and has the right for a credit bid.Danais brought his idea up at a meeting organized by opponents of the plant on June 2, and said that one opponent jumped up and pledged $50,000 towards the offer, while others gave him numerous leads to wealthy environmentalists who might be able to finance it.So he took the idea to the Nottingham board of selectman’s meeting on June 19, where he brought up several tax deals, such as paying taxes for several years, or a low tax rate on most of the land, which would be put in conservation, perhaps by selling an easement to a nonprofit environmental group. The town would gain whatever is lost on taxes by saving on the cost of litigating, Danais said.Not all the opponents were taken with the idea. Some, like Jim Hadley, chairman of Neighborhood Guardians, one of the hosts of the June 2 meeting, thought it had potential.”I have not been involved with that option although it does have some value,” he commented.Others were concerned about any kind of development might require some groundwater withdrawal, if only for the kitchen. “It would be nice to save it all, but 2,000 gallons a day is better than 300,000 gallons a day,” (the amount specified in USA Springs’ permit), Danais said.If Danais does join forces with environmentalists, it would be a bit of an odd match. Both Danais and his brother — who he said would take a managerial but non-financial role in the venture — are conservative Republicans. Both currently hold land in Manchester that is being considered by a bidder for a private prison, another proposal that has attracted neighborhood opposition.Richard Danais served as a state Senator from 1994 to 1998. Romeo Danais ran and lost his first attempt in the 2010 primary, running in a field of seven for five slots to represent Rockingham District 1, which represents Candia, Deerfield, Nottingham and Northwood.At deadline, it was uncertain if he would be facing any opposition in the primary this year. His involvement in the USA Springs bids only shows that “my involvement in my community is more than just showing up in Concord and passing laws, but doing what’s right for my community.”Danais does have some environmental credentials. He owns the General Butler Farm in Nottingham, which boasts free-range chickens and natural, non-medicated feed. And he strongly favors the legalization of marijuana, which he calls “an un-adulterated product of Mother Nature.”He says that he partly is interested in the USA Springs bid for environmental reasons, but it is primarily a business venture.”I’m not opposed to environmental work, but if I’m going to put my money in it, I have to see a way of it coming back,” he said. –BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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