To the North Adams Catholic community and city residents, I am writing in response to a letter to parishioners by Rev. William F. Cyr, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in North Adams.
As many of you know, St. Francis Church was closed several years ago and has sat vacant since. Before becoming mayor, I worked on church finance committees that assisted in the decisions to close Notre Dame and St. Francis churches. In 2010, I made the decision, as have many communities across the state, to tax vacant churches.
In 2010, I was approached by CVS with their plan to purchase St. Francis, tear it down and build a new store. Despite the economic development potential with CVS making significant investment, I felt it most important to do everything possible to keep the oldest and most iconic Catholic church building in our city upright.
I worked with several individuals to try to raise private capital to purchase the church for restoration and reuse, and at that time, the discussions centered around a museum. The diocese was kind enough to allow interested parties ample time to put a plan in place. Despite all best intentions and significant effort, the capital and the plan could not be brought to fruition.
During this time and since, I met and spoke with CVS officials to work with them on alternate sites, namely the former Brien Center on Marshall and Main streets. CVS had no interest in any parcel other than St. Francis. To my knowledge, there was one other viable offer in 2011. In 2012, the bishop graciously allowed another party to propose an idea. The offer was not accepted and this other idea fell by the wayside.
In 2012, I worked with the City Council to put a demolition delay ordinance in place. This ordinance requires anyone applying for a demolition permit to go before the Historical Commission to be certain the demolition of an historic structure be properly vetted before being torn down.
Several weeks ago, I met with Father Cyr and CVS to discuss another CVS option at St. Francis. The plan was once again to tear down the rectory and church and put up a large store. CVS offered to take the top half of the steeple and mount it to a small square building on the far southeast corner of the parcel. I first met this plan with some enthusiasm, however, after a few days of reflection, my enthusiasm waned.
I walked around the complex and stood at the end of the Veterans Memorial and looked south toward Church Street. I was able to see four staggered steeples. I then envisioned the library, and the beautiful historic buildings on Church and East Main streets, and I realized this section of the city was the last large historic piece we have left. St. Francis is the "cornerstone" of this historic section.
I vividly remember what "was" in the city. I remember urban renewal and the loss of so much of our history. I look at the demolition of St. Francis as the beginning of a selective culling of our remaining historic structures.
Father Cyr and the diocese would like all to believe I have "stonewalled" the sale of St. Francis. I will not lie: I have put up obstacles making anyone who purchases St. Francis, or any other historic building, go through a process. This process would put the demolition of St. Francis in front of our Historical Commission. This does not prevent CVS from purchasing the church from the diocese "subject to" their being able to obtain a permit to demolish.
If CVS wants to put up a new store at that location, they can purchase the parcel, apply for a demolition permit and go in front of the Historical Commission. I have never told CVS they could not purchase the parcel, I simply stated they have to go through the process.
The main question here is do we want to give this building up because right now we do not have another solution? I for one am not willing to roll over on this.
Please know that I truly understand the concerns of Father Cyr and the parish. I am sympathetic to the tax obligation and the city assessor worked with the parish last year to lower their tax obligation by a reduction in assessment. Please remember, I worked on finance councils at Notre Dame and St. Francis. I understand the constraints.
The most disturbing words in Father Cyr's letter were "City officials seem content to see the status quo continue while they tax us." Nothing could be further from the truth. Father Cyr's assertion that St. Francis is a "cash cow" for the city is troubling and politically charged at best. And while it is very easy to push this problem on to the city, neither the parish nor the diocese have come up with any solutions short of sale and demolition. Frankly, it is not the city's responsibility (although we have tried) to find solutions for adaptive reuse, but rather to facilitate the proper use based on acceptable private sector investment.
I am in a position where I have to represent what I think is in the city's best interest. I do not want to see selective demolition of St. Francis -- an iconic structure, one that most reflects the history of our Catholic community and this fine city. In Father Cyr's letter, he asks the parishioners to communicate their ideas. Maybe collectively we can find a solution to reuse St. Francis. Minimally, I ask you to look at it from this perspective: Once it comes down, it will be gone forever.