(Opinion) There’s another side to the State School property saga
Laconia’s former city manager takes issue with governor’s and state’s view of vetting process
There has been much coverage of the potential sale of the Laconia State School property. As one who has been involved in the many starts and stops over the past 11 years with this property, I would like to offer up my perspective of events over the past year or so.
Legislation passed in 2021 allowed for the governor to sell the property with the approval of the Executive Council. The state, through the Department of Administrative Services, hired CBRE to market the property. CBRE began actively marketing the property in the spring of 2022 and, after engaging numerous inquiries, CBRE called for final and best offers to be submitted in the summer of 2022.
Throughout 2022, the state was in contact with the city of Laconia at various times to seek input, share information and provide updates. City staff were available to answer zoning land-use questions of interested parties.
Once final proposals were accepted, the state reached out to Laconia and specifically asked if Planning Director Dean Trefethen would be available to serve on a selection committee to review, discuss and make recommendations regarding all summary purchase and redevelopment proposals received.
While in some cases it may have been preferred to have the mayor or city manager represent the city, the city agreed with the Trefethen request, as he attended many of the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission meetings and could also best represent the city’s land-use and planning criteria.
On Sept. 22, once the city was made aware of the creation of a selection committee, Mayor Andrew Hosmer penned a two-page letter to DAS Commissioner Arlinghaus with hard copies also sent to Governor Sununu and the five executive councilors. This letter highlighted approximately 15 areas of concern or priority to the city and included a concern of “a dedicated or shared parking area for evening and weekend activities at the adjacent Robbie Mills Park,” which the governor later claimed the city was raising for the first time at the 11th hour.
It is my understanding that the committee was made up of eight members, five of which were employed by the state.
Trefethen, Councilor Joe Kenney and Rusty McLear were the remaining three members. It has been stated over the past days that there was involvement by the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission in the review process. This is inaccurate. While Rusty McLear served on the Commission and served on the review committee, he was not there as a representative of the Commission, which had no review of the proposals and took no formal action in any manner.
Laconia was not involved in drafting the purchase and sales agreement and did not receive any advance copy of it prior to it appearing on the Governor & Council agenda, issued Dec. 2, in advance of the Dec. 7 meeting. When the document was reviewed by Laconia officials, it was clear that it didn’t address some of the concerns raised in the Sept. 22 Hosmer letter. For Governor Sununu to infer that the city administration is incompetent and looking to slow the process down when we were the ones driving it is almost laughable.
The city administration is very competent, the city isn’t the one driving the process, and the city was clearly on record with multiple concerns with the aforementioned seven highranking state officials via the Sept. 22 letter.
Once the proposed purchase and sale document became public, reporter Annmarie Timmins published an article in the New Hampshire Bulletin which referenced the proposed developer of the State School property as never having completed a project nearly as large. The article also mentioned a Manchester project which was three years behind schedule and the subject of a lawsuit brought by an investor. While these may not be deal-breakers and there could be justifiable reasons why they occurred, it is hoped that the state performed a comprehensive background check on capabilities and finances.
Hosmer’s Sept. 22 letter states, “We trust the committee will perform their due diligence in terms of financial backing and the wherewithal to undertake and successfully complete such a project.”
During an Oct. 19 presentation in Laconia City Hall regarding the chosen developer, when asked a question from the audience regarding the qualifications of the developer, Commissioner Arlinghaus responded: “Yes, actually it is of particular interest to the state. One of the things we don’t want is to be left holding a bag, so to speak, when everything is over. I think everyone is aware of that going in. We relied to a large extent on CBRE to look at the qualifications of the interested parties of the people who were proposing where they would go. There were a number of people who looked at things, and we feel very confident that the experience and financial wherewithal of the chosen party is actually really quite strong and it’s a significant criteria.”
Perhaps, in order to assuage some of the questions that have been raised, Commissioner Arlinghaus could reveal some of the significant criteria that they used or possibly even provide financial background to executive councilors and city officials in a confidential manner.
Could the P&S be amended to include a performance bond or some other benchmark guarantees to protect the city and ensure a fully completed development? City residents deserve protection so that the state doesn’t walk away with a $21 million check while the city ends up with something far short of what was proposed.
While I currently serve in no official capacity in the city, I am a resident and I believe most residents were pleased with the mixed-use development proposal presented on Oct. 19 and are hoping that a well-constructed deal can be put together. We’ve waited decades to get this far. A few more weeks to ensure we are doing it correctly shouldn’t make a difference.
Scott Myers served as Laconia’s city manager from July 1, 2011 to Oct. 2, 2022.