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Bartlett school sale up for debate

December 16, 2009
BERLIN — The owners of Ray's Electric are hoping their proposal to transform the Bartlett school will help revitalize the neighborhood and bring business to Berlin's downtown.

The city council heard their proposal to purchase the building for $100,000 and turn it into a college dorm last week. Next Monday the council will hold a public hearing on whether to sell the building. They hope to sort out questions about the school district's plans for accommodating children from new families that might settle in Berlin to work at the federal prison before they let go of the building.

Steve, Denis, Raymond and Muriel Binette, meanwhile, are waiting to see if the city will accept their offer. They own Ray's Electric, and they have formed a new company, White Mountain Suites, for the Bartlett building project.

"It's a win win," said Steve Binette said. "This is going to bring new people to the area."

He said his partners and he looked at what they could do to help the city, and at the same time keep their employees at Ray's Electric busy in the down economy. The building is sound, he said, but it will still require significant investment. At the same time, he said, developing the building will help rejuvenate the city.

"This is walking distance to your downtown," he said, where students go for food, movies and shopping. Instead of putting students up by the college, where they will have minimal impact on the core of the city, he said, their plan is get them near to the city center.

It will also give students from outside the Berlin/Gorham area a clean, affordable place to live, he said.

White Mountain Suites first has to get the blessing of the council to buy the building. They offered the city $100,000 for the building. The city put out a request for proposals around the state and into Massachusetts; they got one other bidder offering $20,000, and the proposal had a number of strings attached. That developer also intended to transform the school into a college dorm.

Several councilors, however, have raised concerns about the property. Councilor Lucie Remillard said she didn't want to see the building turn into one more poorly managed multi-unit property. Councilor Ryan Landry said he liked the project, but he was concerned about space around the school district. Mayor-elect Paul Grenier and Councilor-elect Michael Rozak both said they too were concerned about the space issue. They said the city should keep the building for a few years until the prison opens so they can make a more informed decision.

Mr. Binette disagreed.

"If we mothball another building it won't be attractive to any developer," he said. He wants to get going on renovations as soon as possible, before issues crop up as a result of disuse. White Mountain Suites intends to serve as a general contractor for the project and hire a few outside companies, he said, but most of the work will be done by Ray's Electric employees.

"This project fits into what our capabilities are for our business," he said.

They are planning a complete renovation: replace the boiler, insulate the attic and walls, new electric, plumbing and fire alarm system, replace the entryway doors and the glass in the windows.

But while extensive work will go on inside the building, he said, what will be most noticeable is how little it changes.

"We're going to try to keep it looking the same," he said, "keep the historical look."

They want to put an awning over one entrance way, he said, but otherwise the intent would be to maintain the exterior. Inside each suite would have five bedrooms, fully furnished with their own kitchenette and bathroom. The plan indicates the building would be divided into 12 suites, and provide housing for between 50 and 75 students. Mr. Binette said they also intend to build an efficiency apartment for an on-site building supervisor, plus laundry facilities, a fitness facility and a function room in the basement.

But the plans will remain drafts until the council approves the sale. The public hearing is scheduled for Monday, December 21, and Mr. Binette intends to be there.

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