Last Friday’s press conference announcing that MassDevelopment has finalized its purchase of the former federal courthouse at 1550 Main St. was, presumably, an effort to inject some positive momentum into City Hall’s plan to move the School Department headquarters into the building.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, who describes the move as a way to bring more people to the Main Street area and keep an important downtown property from sitting vacant, was joined at the announcement by U.S. Rep. Richie Neal, who was instrumental in securing funds for the new federal building recently built on State Street. They were joined by Greg Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, and Robert Culver, president of MassDevelopment.
But the announcement did little to silence objections from some elected officials, who question why the city didn’t seek public bids for a new School Department headquarters, but rather signed a long-term lease for 1550 Main—despite votes by both the School Committee and City Council requesting a public bidding process.
This afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., the School Committee’s Building and Maintenance Subcommittee plans to take up the issue. Member Antonette Pepe has told the press that she plans to ask a number of questions about the lease. She wants to know how the city worked out its lease agreement with MassDevelopment, and why the city agreed to invest several million in improvements to building, given that the development agency just bought the property. In addition, Pepe want to know why the city didn’t just buy the old federal building, “since we have a surplus of $40 million dollars and we purchased two school buildings from the [Springfield Diocese].” And the big question: Why didn’t the city issue a request for proposals for the project?
Finally, Pepe asks, “Why is it the only other person talking about this waste … Councilor Rooke?”
In fact, a number of other School Committee members and city councilors have spoken out about the lease, although none as forcefully as Tim Rooke, who contends the city is overpaying drastically under the agreement. Rooke has even challenged Sarno to a public debate on the matter; the mayor has declined that offer.
Meanwhile, Rooke finds much irony in the city’s recently released request for proposals from contractors to do $1.85 million in building improvements at 1550 Main. Why, Rooke asks, is the city seeking bids for this work (which he suggests could be handled by city laborers), but didn’t seek competitive bidding for the significantly pricier lease agreement?