NORTH ADAMS -- The sale of St. Francis of Assisi Church and its rectory is being blocked by city officials, according to the pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish.
In an open letter sent to parishioners last week, the Rev. William F. Cyr stated that for the last three years, a developer associated with CVS Pharmacy has been interested in purchasing the 1.39-acre lot at the intersection of Union and Eagle streets. However, he said that each time a proposal has been submitted by the developer, it has been rejected by Mayor Richard J. Alcombright.
"I'm very frustrated and angry," Cyr said Tuesday during a joint in terview with Deacon Bruce Ziter at St. Elizabeth's Rectory. "We've had a lot of parishioners ask us what is going on with St. Francis, but up until this point I had been told [by the diocese] that I couldn't speak out, as it might hurt negotiations."
But that changed a few weeks ago, after Cyr and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, which owns the property on behalf of the parish, learned that the latest proposal submitted to the city would not win the mayor's support.
"Six weeks ago I met with the mayor, a CVS representative and Jack Dill of Colebrook Realty, which represents the diocese, and we discussed a plan for the site," he said. "We all agreed it needed to be tweaked, but it seemed acceptable. Then a week later, the mayor said he would not support the plan. It was at that point I decided I needed to let the parish know what was happening."
In the letter, he noted that CVS made an offer in 2010, but that after talking with the city, the diocese favored an offer by a group of local investors which fell through two years later. In March 2012, CVS made another offer on the property.
"At one point during 2010, there was an independent group interested in turning the church into a museum," Cyr said. "There was a deal that the [CVS] developer would purchase the property and give the church to that group. Instead, we went with a different group of in vestors that the city put forward."
Alcombright confirmed Tuesday that the city has been approached by Colebrook Realty and the diocese about the sale of the St. Francis property on several occasions. He said the plan submitted by CVS in 2010 saved the church, but the offer was to give the church to the city -- something he could not agree with.
"We cannot afford to take on another building," he said, noting the city still owns the former Notre Dame church and school on East Main Street.
Cyr said his anger stems from the fact the parish continues to pay more than $30,000 a year in taxes for the church property, yet the city continues to block any proposed sale and has since put in place an ordinance delaying the demolition of any "historically significant build ing over 50 years old" for up to 12 months.
"That ordinance was put in place because of St. Francis," he said. "The city offers no alternatives. Our parish cannot continue to pay taxes on this property. It is draining what little savings we have."
Alcombright said that as a member of the parish, he understands the strain caused by the taxes. However, he said the city worked in the last year with the diocese and provided some relief by reassessing the property. According to the city assessor's office, an abatement was issued to the diocese and the property's assessed value was lowered from $1.2 million in fiscal 2012 to $800,000 in fiscal 2013.
The mayor said his initial disagreement with the proposal from CVS stems from the property's location, which is right across from Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's and Aubuchon Hardware and has the potential to create even more traffic problems at that intersection. An alternative location, the former Brien Center on Marshall Street, was suggested to CVS by the city.
Alcombright said his most recent decision is based on historical preservation of the Church Street corridor, which is one of the city's only historic districts that remains fully intact. St. Francis church, which was built in 1863, is the city's oldest Roman Catholic church.
"Although the most recent plan saved a portion of the steeple, I feel if I were to back something like this, I would be backing selective urban renewal," he said. "At the same I have also made it known that CVS can purchase the property at anytime. I have encouraged CVS to make the sale subject to it successfully ob taining a demolition permit. At the end of the day, the decision to issue a permit will be made by the Historical Com mis sion and the Planning Board."
Mark Dupont, diocesan spokes man, said "the diocese shares an interest in preserving church buildings," but that it ultimately must make decisions based on the needs of its parishes.
"When that option cannot be achieved, we have an obligation to market to all qualified buyers since funds from a sale are, in most cases, very much needed by the successor parish which is the direct beneficiary of any property sale," he said in an email. "The circumstances which Fr. Cyr correctly conveys in his letter, shows the lengths we have gone to work cooperatively with local officials to find a mutually agreed upon solution A sale would enable the parish to continue to fund its ministries and services in the North Adams community, and would most likely bring much needed tax revenue into the city's coffers while putting this site back into active use."