NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Supporters of the Belmont building library project shouted “shame, shame” Tuesday after the Town Council voted to approve a $2 million sale of the building to a Connecticut developer interested in transforming the property into a “European-style” food market.
The vote capped hours of discussion and comment from members of the public imploring the council not to go through with the sale.
But the same council majority bloc that voted to sell the former Belmont Market space in January and sell part of the building to Pier Liquors two weeks ago followed through with another 3-2 vote Tuesday.
Voting to approve the purchase and sales agreement with developer Carlos Mouta were Council President Matthew Mannix, council President Pro Tempore Jill Lawler and Councilor Rick Lema.
Councilors Jesse Pugh and Patrick Murray voted against it. They also tried but failed to get the rest of the council to continue the matter.
Mouta’s name has been connected with the Pier property for several weeks in online social media posts, though confirmation he was an interested buyer didn’t come until the agenda for the meeting was posted late last week.
The $2,070,145, agreement would have Mouta’s PKV LLC pay the town $50,000 within five days of signing the agreement, plus $700,000 at closing.
Then, PKV would make interest-only payments of about $5,000 per month for up to three years. Solicitor Mark Davis said the property would revert to the town if PKV defaulted on it.
“The project would be a kitchen area and then around it there would be an eatery-style concept,” Mannix said. “It would be up to different businesses in town if they wanted to be a part of it.”
Mannix feels the project could supplement the town’s Monday and Wednesday night food trucks in the summer.
“A lot of people in town have said they want to revitalize the Pier,” he said. He also added that the town would keep the $750,000 deposit if the project didn’t work out.
“That’s the mechanism we put in to protect ourselves,” he said.
The Hartford Courant reported in 2018 that Mouta has plans for a similar food market in Hartford with upwards of 40 vendors.
“The ground level would include dozens of food stands run by city and suburban companies. A blend of flavors and cultures would be featured, from Mexican cuisine to Vietnamese fare,” the paper reported.
“He loves this town and wants to help this town,” Lawler said. “His intent is to create up to 20 professional kitchens on his dime. He’s going to put about $2 million into this building and then operate it.”
Critics who got up and spoke Tuesday blasted the deal as one that is unfavorable to the town, on several levels.
They said Mouta’s plan would take business away from other local establishments.
They speculated that Mouta might not develop the property at all, but rather hold it and “flip” it by selling it later for a profit.
Several criticized Mouta for not personally appearing Tuesday and presenting his proposal. They questioned his projects in Hartford and a Chapter 11 filing in Connecticut.
A food market, which many derisively called a “food court,” will not work at the Pier, they said. The town should not be in the mortgage lending business, others argued.
Win Hames, a vocal opponent of the sale, said that by financing roughly $1.3 million of the sale, the town would be violating a charter provision by issuing a loan debt of more than 1.5 percent of its budget without getting voter approval. The limit is $900,000, he said.
“You’re loaning this buyer far in excess of that which is allowed,” in the charter, Hames said.
The fate of the property is far from clear, with the prospect of legal challenges on the horizon.
Attorney Michael Kelly, representing GP Pier Retail LLC, a part of Gilbane Building, said GP Pier Retail “was induced to sell the building to the town due to the fact that it was to be a library serving town residents,” with a discounted maintenance agreement. He said the discount amounts to $20,000 per year.
“Now it appears we have a bait and switch. The town wants to sell the property and allow an intense commercial use,” and diminish the value of the property he said, vowing that GP would take “whatever legal action is necessary to prevent this transaction.”
The Love Your Library Coalition condemned the deal in a statement released before the meeting.
“The Town Council may have been acting legally with 13-14 executive sessions about this real estate deal, but where was the appraisal,” Nancy DeNuccio, president of the Love Your Library Coalition said. “Where was the transparency for the residents? Why would the town need to finance the deal? I don’t think the surrounding businesses will appreciate an out-of-state developer swooping in to create a food court in a space which was expressly purchased by the town for a modern new library.”