Opposition dominates at public hearing; Welch stresses her desire to secure a private developer
By Terry Duffy
"For the record, I am not in favor of the village purchasing the Frontier House."
So announced Village of Lewiston Mayor Anne Welch to a crowd of more than 70 gathered Monday in the Morgan Lewis Boardroom at the Red Brick Municipal Building, as comments were heard on the village's intent to purchase the historic Frontier House from Hastings Lewiston for $800,000.
"During my campaign going door to door, I spoke with many residents who want the Frontier House restored, but not at the taxpayers' expense. ... I am very hopeful that the building will be purchased soon by private developers and restored to its former glory," Welch said.
Resident input followed, and comment people did.
Over a period of close to 45 minutes, 14 residents spoke - all in opposition to the purchase.
Seneca Street resident Bob Giannetti, a noted area book author, conveyed the thoughts of many as he questioned the village's haste to acquire the Frontier House at this time. Giannetti likened it to the swiftness of earlier village approvals with Bill Paladino for the Ellicott Development project at Center and North Eighth streets. That project is now mired in a state of inactivity amid zoning code issues the village is tackling related to recent design changes.
"Both initiatives seem to have been undertaken with a 'ready, aim, shoot' approach without ... a good plan of utilization and provision for completion once the village takes action," Giannetti said.
He went on to criticize the village for its undertaking of the Frontier House project without considering how to pay for it, what its use would be, and who would implement the plans - the village or a new owner. Giannetti blasted the village's $800,000 purchase offer, calling it excessive in light of the extensive list of repairs the property faces.
"Who benefits?" Giannetti asked, as he questioned the village's planning perspective. He again pointed to the Paladino project.
"Who needs another plaza? Why another drug store, or McDonalds or Tim Hortons?" Giannetti said. "How will a few high-rent shops affect other businesses?"
Giannetti said the project would only bring increased traffic and disruptions to the village's character.
"It's better to exercise some real creative imagination on behalf of the residents and visitors alike, and fold it into a comprehensive plan to maintain the character and vitality of the village," Giannetti said. He suggested the Village of Lewiston instead model itself on Niagara on the Lake.
As to the Frontier House, he added, "We need to cool our jets; we have yet to have a long-range plan for the whole village that would be based on credible and creative options." He closed to rounds of applause.
From there, virtually all who spoke expressed some form of opposition to the purchase. Issues ranged from the village's announced offer to buy; the actual value of the Frontier House; questions over village plans for the property; to fears of an increased tax burden on residents; the distrust by residents of Hasting Lewiston interests; and threats of potential lawsuits.
"If you do buy, he's got $800,000; he could come back and sue this village," resident and businessman Ron Craft said. He faulted the village for its own handling of Hastings' proposals at the Frontier House over past years.
"I think you're looking for trouble if you buy it, and I'd like to know what you've been doing for the last 10 years," Craft said in regard to the present state of the building's exterior.
Welch tried to allay residents' concerns. She told those attending, "I have had some interest (by private developers) in the purchase of it. I am very hopeful that someone will purchase it" (during the 120-day diligence period).
The comment session wrapped up with another offer by Lewiston businessman Herbert Richardson to acquire the Frontier House property. In recent weeks, Richardson has grown increasingly critical of village efforts to acquire the structure, citing the costs to purchase and renovate the historic building as well as the village's past handling of the property over the years under Hastings Lewiston ownership.
"I would like to buy the property," Richardson said, as he reiterated an interest made earlier. "My intent is to preserve the Frontier House, as a historical building, at my own expense, and to use the land as a parking lot."
Citing a past assessment of the Frontier House, which he said was in the $300,000 range, Richardson went on to question why the village offered $800,000 to purchase the property in the first place. Richardson told Welch and trustees he would be "quite happy" to pay Hastings anywhere from $350,000 to $450,000 and then restore the structure with his own money.
"You talk that you're looking for an independent businessman who will spend his own money, will preserve the building, make the land available for parking. I'm that person," Richardson said.
He criticized the village's latest offer. He said that, as a result of the village's offer, his own efforts to buy the property are now "tied up."
Trustee Vic Eydt disputed Richardson's statement. He said Richardson disrupted earlier village negotiations with Hastings interests on the Frontier House by filing his own lawsuit against Hastings. Richardson denied that claim, as tempers flared between the two. He then demanded Eydt retract the statement and threatened to sue over libel.
Eydt later backed off and apologized to Richardson for the remark.
Calming the tension, Welch then told Richardson, "I will give this to our attorney and to board members to consider this proposal."
Thanking residents for their comments, she added, "In these 120 days, we are going to do our due diligence and we are going to hopefully move this on to a private developer."
The village's transaction is contingent on acquiring financing, the results of the 120-day due diligence period, as well as the comments received from the public.