Major Hurdle Cleared in Fairhaven Mills Site Development

Purchase of Antiques Building Completes Fairhaven Mills Site
By Joe Cohen Standard-Times Staff writer

NEW BEDFORD — Three parties with a lot to gain or lose over the Fairhaven Mills development project have won, with an agreement this week by businessman John Meldon to sell his land to Dickinson Development Corp. for an undisclosed price.
The deal gives:
* Mr. Meldon the sale of an old mill that was expensive to hold and maintain to possibly the only serious potential buyer in a difficult economic climate.
* Dickinson Development the key, gateway parcel to the Fairhaven Mills site that allows it to move forward with almost 14 acres instead of 9.
* Mayor Scott W. Lang an economic development victory.
The mayor had blown up a deal done by the previous administration to put a Home Depot on the site and taken flak about the resulting loss of potential tax revenue and jobs.
Even with the deal done, one important piece remains missing: a primary tenant for what is one of the most visible and valuable sites in the city.
On Tuesday, in advance of a formal announcement today, Mark Dickinson, Mayor Lang and Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, confirmed the deal was done. All expressed optimism about finding an anchor tenant for a site intended to be two-thirds retail and one-third mixed uses.
“We are in discussions with retail and office tenants and I am optimistic about prospective tenants in spite of the general state of the economy,” Mr. Dickinson said. He cautioned, however, it would be a step-by-step development process and he would not predict when a major tenant would be signed.
Mayor Lang called the agreement between Mr. Meldon and Dickinson Development “a major milestone for the city.” He said the developer now “owns or has under agreement all of the properties needed to make this 14-acre site a prime development showcase for the city.”
Mr. Meldon declined comment.
No one would disclose the sale price, which will be a matter of public record after the sale closes in February. Mr. Meldon is believed to have paid about $1.4 million for the 3.9-acre parcel on Coggeshall Street. It is directly across from the Interstate 195 westbound off- and on-ramps. He also invested money to maintain and improve the old mill building, which currently houses antiques and collectibles dealers on the first floor. Mr. Meldon was at one time asking about $4.5 million for the property. He also sold options on the property to the developer of the planned Home Depot and another project.
Mr. Meldon was among those who suffered a significant setback when Mayor Lang took office in 2006 and killed the Home Depot deal, which had been put together under the administration of Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. Separate from Mr. Meldon’s property, as part of the Kalisz deal, the city agreed to sell its three Fairhaven Mills parcels for $10,000 with George J. Leontire, former city solicitor and campaign advisor to Mayor Kalisz, to receive a $500,000 fee.
Under the deal Mayor Lang put together with Dickinson for the same three city parcels, Dickinson paid the city $500,000 — 50 times what Mayor Kalisz planned to get.
Just last week, Dickinson Development and the mayor touted the fact that the developer had met its end of a 2008 deadline to take ownership of the city parcels and complete demolition of two burned-out mill buildings.
Mr. Dickinson said Tuesday that antique dealers in the Meldon mill building would continue in business there for the time being. All parties plan to close the sale in February. Mr. Dickinson said he would work with the antique dealers to help them find new locations but, while the demolition of the mill building was a certainty, there was no timetable.
Mr. Dickinson called the mill building “economically obsolete” with “no meaningful adaptive reuse.” He said it lacked adequate parking and was “not historically significant.”
Just several months ago, in ongoing back-and-forth posturing by Mr. Meldon and Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Meldon said he could not come to terms with Dickinson Development and the land and mill building were no longer for sale. Mr. Dickinson said his team had decided to forgo future efforts to negotiate with Mr. Meldon and would develop its 9 acres of Fairhaven Mills property without Mr. Meldon’s 3.9 acres. City and state officials said more than $1 million in road reconstruction would begin on Coggeshall Street and the highway ramps using a plan that did not include the Meldon property for the larger development.
But behind the scenes, apparently, negotiations went on in a more than year-long process.
Mr. Dickinson said the two sides “reached middle ground” recently to get the deal done. He said the importance of Mr. Meldon’s property was that it would be the “front door” of the parcel. “We always believed we could develop a good, 9-acre, contiguous site. (But) the character and quality … were not as good without the front door. We always wanted to get John (Meldon’s) property — fortunately, we got it under contract.”
Mr. Dickinson said the speed of the project will be dictated in part by how soon a key tenant for the site is lined up.
Mayor Lang said, “I am confident they are moving along in a deliberate and constructive manner. In 2009, we will see that project take off.”
Contact Joe Cohen at
January 14, 2009
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