NARRAGANSETT – Placed on the agenda of Monday’s town council meeting is a motion proposing the sale of the town-owned space currently occupied by Pier Liquors and the second-floor space of the “old Belmont/IGA building” to DSM Pier Realty, LLC, owners of Pier Liquors, for $735,000. The potential sale is notable as the two properties were previously purchased by the town, along with the first-floor space of the former Belmont structure, as intended locations of a new town library.
“Accepting this offer allows the town to fix a major mistake made by the prior town council,” the motion summary from town council president Matthew Mannix reads. “The town should never have purchased this or any liquor store in the first place.”
In January, the current council in a split vote elected to put up for sale the property previously purchased by the town for a new library, including the Pier Liquors building. The 3,000-square-foot space the liquor store currently occupies in the Pier Marketplace adjoins the former Belmont property, which was set to serve as the main space for the new library. The previous council purchased the space from Gilbane, Inc. in October of last year. A previous, $2.4 million iteration of the ultimately approved purchase and sale contract proposed in 2017 did not include the Pier Liquors space or explicit ownership by the town of all the property included in the deal. The ultimately approved version of the contract did include the liquor store and explicit ownership of all property included for $2.8 million, a difference of $400,000. When the town took over the space after the October 2018 purchase, Pier Liquors began paying an annual rent of approximately $48,000 to the town. Prior to the town’s purchase, Pier Liquors paid rent to Gilbane, Inc.
“This dispels the rumor that we’re losing money every day,” said Mannix in reference to a common criticism of the library project’s halting. “You may hear from some of the people in the angry mob that we’re losing money every day. We’re actually not. We get rent from Pier Liquors that’s paid to us on a monthly basis.”
In 2016, 68 percent of those voting approved a $5.8 million for a new town library. The previous town council acted upon that vote, securing the Pier Marketplace properties from Gilbane, Inc. in that mission. A new council possessing a three-person majority opposing the project in its current form due to fiscal and logistical concerns with its buildout were elected in November, setting the stage for a showdown between the current council majority not in favor of the project and residents in strong support. Since the council elected to put the property up for sale in January, residents have filed petitions and lawsuits against the action, attended many council meetings to protest the decision, and the council voted to cut the town’s annual allocation to the library by more than half, effectively crippling its budget, while citing a $600,000 “surplus” in the library board’s possession during the process.
A 2012 library consultant’s report outlined a need for a certain amount of square footage in any new library constructed by the town. According to library board chair Laurie Kelly, the town’s relinquishing of the space currently occupied by Pier Liquors to the liquor store, along with the former Belmont building’s second floor, would make that standard impossible pending the acquisition of more space for library purposes, a factor that would affect the library’s annual state funding, according to the chair.
“Hypothetically, if we didn’t have this council, and we could move forward with this project, we have to make up that space,” Kelly continued. “Our consultants sent a letter to this council in January explaining how expensive it would be to alter that building to add another 3,500 to 5,000 square feet. That’s what we could be looking at. We could still be there, but we’d have much more difficult architectural problems to add the space. If we don’t meet the consultant’s report regarding spacing, then of course we’re not going to get state money.”
Narragansett’s Maury Loontjens Memorial Library, like other municipal libraries, receives about $180,000 annually from the state’s Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS) to bolster its programs and services.
Both Mannix and Kelly said the proposed purchase of the Pier Liquors space and the second floor of the Belmont building by the liquor store would not “kill” the vision for the library project in the first floor of the same building.
“I don’t think this deal itself precludes any uses of the IGA building, the IGA building is separate from this,” said Mannix. “The second floor right now, you need to access it whether it was a town department being put up there, library being put up there, there’s an accessibility issue with that second floor. I don’t think this deal changes anything with the IGA building, it can still have any potential future buyer, any potential future use. I think it would be totally unfair to say Pier Liquors’ purchase of this is something that’s going to change the future of the IGA building. Pier Liquors never should have been bought in the first place by the town. We’re trying to fix that.”
“It doesn’t kill the library deal,” said Kelly. “What it does is cost the town money. If this purchase is approved, what they will have done is sold square footage that we need to have included to get reimbursement from OLIS.”
“This [council majority] has made it clear they don’t care about anything, but that’s our concern,” she continued. “I do think there are going to be some bumps with this, because it’s a motion against the will of the people and this council knows how impassioned everyone is here.”
Mannix said he was “happy” with the proposed purchase price of $735,000, stating the town council worked closely with owners of the liquor store to “protect and ensure the future of a local business.”
“Last term, the [Pier Liquors component] was thrown into the $2.8 million real estate deal,” Mannix said. “It was not thought through and so the whole question became what would the future of Pier Liquors be? Would they have to relocate? They’ve been paying rent to the town, which was never intended. The Pier Liquors space was never intended to be part of the 2016 bond–Pier Liquors was never going to be a part of that. Why that was put into this deal never made sense. I feel that we have to fix that mistake that was made.”
“We’re showing that we care about a local business and the owners of Pier Liquors are paying a healthy price too,” he continued. “That will allow us to start to defray some of the money that was taken from the general fund to pay the $2.8 million.”
When asked if there was any indication as to what could go into the space after the purchase, Mannix said he was not sure.
“I don ’t think anything is going to go in there in the near future,” he said. “I think the accessibility is a concern. As for what could go there, I don’t really have a clear answer on that. My thinking is [the potential purchase] is more an opportunity to expand if [Pier Liquors] needs to. That’s my understanding, but once the property’s sold, things can change, the new owners can do whatever they want.”
Mannix also noted if the sale goes through, the town would lose outright ownership of the aforementioned space, there would be no condominium arrangement, and the property would go back on the tax rolls, equating to revenue for the town.
“They’ll own and they’ll take on the percentage of the common area maintenance (CAM) fees that the town currently pays,” he said.
The town currently pays about $38,000 annually to Gilbane, Inc. for CAM fees, which includes snow plowing, landscaping and lighting costs, among other expenses, in the Pier Marketplace, the majority of which housing apartments and small businesses, property still owned by Gilbane, Inc.
When asked if the Pier Liquors purchase factored into any vision for the future of the former Belmont building, Mannix again answered in the negative.
“The owners of Pier Liquors had asked for it, and we negotiated the price,” he said. “In order for a public entity to use that space, I mean I don’t want to oversimplify it, but it’s my understanding we’d have to put in an elevator.”
Mannix confirmed that no motion would be appearing on Monday’s agenda that called for the proposed sale of the first floor of the former Belmont building. Last Friday afternoon, an anonymous email was sent to The Narragansett Times, another local publication and the Love Your Library Coalition, a local grassroots organization in support of the library project at the former Belmont site, stating the buyer of the former Belmont space was Connecticut business owner Carlos Mouta.
The email set off a chain of speculation by residents on social media. Mannix, along with pro-library project councilors Patrick Murray and Jesse Pugh, declined comment when asked about Mouta, and if he was in talks with the council regarding the purchase of the former Belmont property. According to reports appearing in various Connecticut publications, Mouta is developing an elaborate food hall, dubbed Parkville Market, in Hartford, Conn., by converting a long-vacant warehouse into a space outfitted with multiple food vendors and other businesses. The project’s completion, however, has been significantly delayed due to construction concerns, according to reports. Mouta did not respond to request for comment.
Editor’s note: This article was written Thursday afternoon in accordance with The Narragansett Times’ deadline for its Friday edition. Narragansett Town Council agendas are typically publicly posted on the Friday before a Monday council meeting.