Five hours before the big rally to save the Star Store in downtown New Bedford, MFA students were still moving their creative lives out of the building.
UMass Dartmouth gave the latest of its moving deadlines. This one at 3:30 p.m. was two hours before the 5:30 rally to save the campus was set to start.
It was almost as if the university administrators wanted to make sure the school had left the massive white birthday cake of a structure for good before anyone could build up any steam in a protest.
Some of the students had stickers affixed to their T-shirts that said “Fragile — Handle with Care.”
Artists to the core, they were using the act of their forced march to Dartmouth to comment on what their public university’s quest for the endless dollar has done to their artistic lives, if not their psyches.
“We’re not willing to go quietly,” said Fallon Navarro, a master in fine arts ceramics student, a physically slight young woman with a massive heart who has somehow become the political voice for many of the students this past week.
And it’s not just their artistic lives they care about, she said. “We care about the community” of downtown New Bedford where they have lived and learned as students.
Navarro and her friend Jill McEvoy, who made scores of Save the Star Store posters, have been the visible face of the CVPA students these last two weeks. And even as the faculty, dependent on their livelihoods, found it hard to speak up on the record, Navarro and McEvoy were intrepid about speaking truth to power. They are artists in every sense of the word.
I hope it’s not all for naught.
Rally attracts hundreds
Around town this week, it was hard to find anyone who is a longtime observer of New Bedford who thought there is still a prayer of saving the downtown college, as box after box was removed, dumpster after dumpster filled with perfectly good furniture.
Sen. Mark Montigny and Mayor Mitchell have said nothing on the issue for more than a week now. The governor has never said anything, despite Montigny’s performance-art letter begging her to help. Neither has UMass President Marty Meehan, who of course, has very little to do with how the chancellors of the separate UMass campuses run their schools. Not.
In the wings was developer Paul Downey, still silent as a quiet cat bird. “He’ll have something to say when he deems it appropriate,” said spokesperson to all New Bedford insiders, Liz Isherwood.
Evidently when students are having their dreams wrenched away from them is not the appropriate time. Evidently when a city is about to lose the linchpin of its revival over the last 20 years is not the appropriate time.
The whispering around town was loud this week about how badly handled the matter had been by New Bedford’s state senator, mayor, and longtime state rep. Montigny, Mitchell and Tony Cabral certainly have their fans around town, but they were not among the folks who realize what a disaster it is for New Bedford to lose this downtown arts college, and what a nightmare it will be to have a big massive building with holes in its roof in the the heart of the city.
Many opined that none of it makes any sense. Both the university and the elected officials are saying they really want to stay in New Bedford. But both point at the other and say you have to make the first move.
The university says the Legislature has to first fund the maintenance budget, and the Legislature says the university has to first buy the building for $1. It’s like two 8-year-olds. The only conclusion, say many observers, is that both the Legislature and the university don’t want an arts college in downtown New Bedford anymore. Both say it’s too expensive. The university says it’s protecting the tuition of students, and Montigny says he’s protecting the taxpayers.
Neither the university nor the elected officials have criticized developer Paul Downey by name. And most of them have said nothing at all beyond filing what many see as Downey’s thin legal argument that UMass has missed the deadline for taking the building. He does have state Rep. Chris Markey, recipient of his campaign funds, out there saying the building has served its purpose as an arts college and it’s time to think about it for housing or offices.
Markey, no doubt, has noticed that property values are finally rising in New Bedford after several generations in the doldrums. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that all of this is about a second big Star Store payday for Downey.
Which brings me to what Mr. Downey has been up to.
On Dec. 23, 2021, shortly after the UMass lease had run out in August, Downey quietly sold the building to himself for $1.
It’s a beautiful thing. The university didn’t want it for $1 but Downey did. He sold it from one company he controls to another. The first company, Star Holdings Ltd. sold it to Star Store Holdings LLC.
But that’s not all Downey was up to.
Over the past two years, Star Store Holdings has spent a bunch of money on lobbying, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
On March 1, 2022, even as UMass Dartmouth and the Division of Capital Assets Management were being ordered by legislation designed by Montigny and former Gov. Charlie Baker to buy the building for $1, Downey’s company paid $40,000 to Issues Management Group Public Affairs LLC, a Boston lobbying group. On Nov. 1, 2022, he paid an additional $20,000 to Murphy Donaghue Partners, another Boston lobbying group.
On May 1, 2023, Star Store Holdings paid still an additional $30,000 to Issues Management Group LLC for lobbying.
Think about that. Downey paid $90,000 in lobbying fees just on the Star Store in the year Montigny was trying to force UMass Dartmouth to take the building for $1 once and for all. Then shortly after, he sold it to himself for $1.
If you ask me, $90,000 paid for lobbying on one issue is an awful lot of money for a developer from Greater New Bedford, even a well-heeled one.
I initially found only the first $30,000, thanks again to my friend Fallon and her husband’s research. I asked all the members of the New Bedford legislative delegation whose districts included the Star Store at one time — Montigny, Cabral and Chris Hendricks. All of them said they were not approached by Downey’s company.
The one lawmaker who was approached on the Star store was Rep. Markey of Dartmouth, the guy who put out the press release saying it is time to develop something else other than an arts college in the building.
Markey said he received one “two-minute” phone call from Jack Murphy urging him to fund the Star Store lease through which Downey was paid.
It was not clear to me whether Murphy was working for Issues Management or Murphy Dongaghue when he made the call. Maybe both. An official with Issues Management told me the company would have no comment on what they did for Downey.
Montigny’s spokesperson was particularly emphatic that he had not been lobbied, a practice the senator decries. “Senator Montigny believes special interest lobbyists have no place manipulating public policy, particularly on public projects,” wrote Audra Riding.
Cabral’s spokesperson also denied he had been lobbied, and Hendricks said he had not. So did Chancellor Fuller and President Meehan.
I have not been able to reach officials with the Division of Capital Assets Management and the UMass Building Authority.
But Downey did not pay $90,000 for nothing.
The silence of the lambs among the rest of the New Bedford delegation, not to mention Mayor Mitchell, is growing deafening. Mitchell has not returned my last two calls on the downtown New Bedford campus. Fair enough. I’ve criticized him pointedly in my first two columns on the subject. But really.
Screw your courage to the sticking place, Mr. Mayor. This is a matter of immense public importance to the city. You’ve talked to me for many years on a whole variety of subjects on which we didn’t agree. Think of it as talking to the public if not me.
Also not talking is President Meehan’s office, never mind Chancellor Fuller who’s been invisible since he released his Aug. 15 letter that he was closing the school immediately.
Meehan, who absolutely is the moving force behind the philosophy of what’s going on at the UMass campus, shows no signs of intervening on behalf of New Bedford.
“We are referring questions about Star Store to the campus,” said Meehan spokesman John Hoey.
Someone who is talking is third-term Rep. Hendricks, who as a result of redistricting, now represents the CVPA campus, or former campus, in New Bedford.
He told me he felt the best hope for solving this mess is a lawsuit against Downey.
“It’s a suit to enforce the law (that the university has the right to take the building for $1). I think this is our best option. The governor can have a hand in getting the transfer (to Umass Dartmouth) done.”
Another person who has been tremendously bothered by what has happened at the Star Store is former Mayor Scott Lang, who said it’s inconceivable to him that the local lawmakers could not get this done. He says the state’s top officials have to get involved.
“What I’d ask the governor and attorney general to do is host a meeting with President Meehan, Mayor Mitchell, Senator Montigny, Rep. Cabral, Chancellor Fuller and Mr. Downey. Bring them all to the State House and have them resolve the issue of the Star Store,” he said.
They can give Downey some sort of compensation for the state’s delay in not buying the building, and then they should map out a concrete future for the Star Store.
A great public university of the fine arts will attract students from around the country, he said. The floors that are not being used can be leased out to make money.
“The idea that the Star Store is not functioning well as an art school is something that is not acceptable for the growth of the city.”
Email columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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