By Ryan Blessing
NARRAGANSETT — A push to get a professional appraisal of the former Belmont/IGA building, which three of five Town Councilors voted to sell in January rather than transform into a new library, hit a brick wall at Monday’s regular council meeting.
Councilors Patrick Murray and Jesse Pugh offered up the motion and voted for it. But the vote went the same way as several other attempts to move the stalled library project along, with Council President Matthew Mannix and members Jill Lawler and Richard Lema voting against it.
The appraisal would have covered the so-called library portion of the town-owned building, plus 59 parking spaces, and the Pier Liquors section and its nine spaces, in addition to a strip of parking spaces abutting the public safety building to Caswell Street.
Murray said that Gilbane’s recent sale of the nearby Trio building for $2.8 million on June 14 to a Newport restaurant group is similar to the Belmont building sale to the town in early 2018.
“It’s approximately half the square footage, and 57 parking spaces … it’s a good comp, which defends the price that we paid for 20,000 square feet and a paying tenant and 68 parking spaces, 1.22 acres and deeded access.”
Pugh noted that he and Murray tried a month ago to get the town to publicly list and market the Belmont building for sale. The council voted against that move.
“If you have a council looking to sell a property, that would be the most transparent way to do it,” he said.
He also said residential sales are surging, and that could “spill over” into commercial property sales.
“If this council really wants to sell this building, then we should do right by the taxpayers, which is to understand the true value of the property,” Pugh said. “And to go into any negotiations at any point for this building really shouldn’t happen without knowing the value.”
Residents expressed anger that talks about a potential sale of the building are being negotiated in executive session, a closed-door process not open to the public. Minutes from such sessions are sealed in perpetuity.
“Let’s let some sun in,” resident Ted DeStefano said. “What are you hiding?”
“We’re trying to get the best price for the taxpayers,” Mannix said. “No one’s hiding anything … any real estate deal the town gets into, there are executive sessions leading up to it.”
More than one complained of what they thought was a “back-room deal,” on the building, which Mannix challenged.
“I’d like to remind people it’s not Salem in 1692, and don’t throw out accusations when you have nothing to back it up,” he said.
Others said they don’t support selling the building, but that it’s the town’s fiscal responsibility to get a current appraisal if they do, in order to get the best possible sale price.
“It’s important we know what the true value of the Belmont building is,” Murray said. “Certainly there seems to be a commercial shift at the pier.”
Voters in 2016 approved up to $5.8 million in borrowing for the purposes of improving town library facilities, and the town bought the Belmont building in March 2018 for $2.8 million. The building is still owned by the town and has not been listed for sale.
“We’re not secret agents here. We need to let everyone know we’re selling it,” Murray said. He accused the majority councilors of wanting to sell the building short to make a political issue.
“It’s almost like you want it to fail, make it into a disaster to make a good narrative for the 2020 election. ‘I saved the day. Thank God we got out of that Belmont building.’ That’s what I suspect,” Murray said.
“Thank you for your suspicion,” Mannix replied.