New Bedford, UMass move closer to SMAST expansion deal

NEW BEDFORD — The city and UMass Dartmouth have reached an agreement in principle to transfer the Naval Reserve Center property in the South End to the university for a multimillion-dollar expansion of its SMAST facilities, according to Mayor Scott W. Lang.
Lang said lawyers on both sides are still working out the language and the details of the final written agreement, but he expects that process to be completed within 30 to 45 days — perhaps sooner.
“I do feel that the agreement in principle is the key to having this deal done,” he said. “I think the political will is here to get this done very quickly.”
UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean MacCormack confirmed that an agreement in principle had been reached after a series of productive conversations with the city over the past few weeks.
The university is preparing to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Education for the transfer of the land but, before that application can be completed, both the School Committee and City Council must vote to approve the transfer, said MacCormack.
(In 1997, the DOE deeded the property to the city but included a clause in the deed that requires written authorization from the DOE before the city can transfer ownership to anybody else.)
According to MacCormack, the university has requested that both the School Committee and City Council take up the matter at their September meetings.
“What’s important to me is to keep the growth and development of SMAST moving,” she said. “I do believe — and I’ve said this over and over again — that doing it in New Bedford is our first choice but we need to get moving.”
The city and the university have been wrangling over the transfer of the NRC property for years without resolution.
Now, “the devil’s in the details, and we need to get the language down and get these votes done,” said MacCormack. “We need to translate it from principle to action.”
In the past, one of the sticking points in the negotiations has been Lang’s desire to include a clause that would return the property to the city if UMass Dartmouth stopped using it for educational purposes.
According to MacCormack, both parties have now agreed to that, although the specific language of that clause has yet to be finalized.
Generally, however, the “reverter clause” would cover a 99-year period following the transfer, returning the property to the federal government for the first 30 years of that period and to the city for the remaining 69 years, said MacCormack.
(The latter action would require action by the state Legislature, said MacCormack.)
MacCormack emphasized the clause would only apply if the university fails to meet the requirement that the land be used for educational purposes.
“It is highly unlikely that even in 99 years … that the university will cease using it for educational purposes,” she said.
While MacCormack said the fact that an agreement in principle has been reached is an encouraging sign, the university is still facing time pressure to get the project started.
About $25 million of the $48 million project is being financed through Build America bonds, which the university has already borrowed, said MacCormack.
Those bonds carry a very low interest rate, but if the project is not substantially completed by October 2013, the rates will go up, she said.
“That’s why we’re very anxious, and we’ve said before we have deadlines,” said MacCormack.
If UMass and the city can translate the agreement in principle into a signed agreement, the university is ready to go, according to MacCormack. “If not, we have to go to Plan B,” she said.
August 19, 2011 12:00 AM
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