NEW BEDFORD — The state’s Inspector General will begin an investigation into all finances spent since September 2021 at the former Star Store campus of UMass Dartmouth.
The investigation is required by law after state Sen. Mark Montigny inserted language into this year’s budget calling for a review of “amounts paid for rents, utility expenses, deferred maintenance, capital improvements, personnel expenses and any other operating expenses” at the Star Store. Montigny’s legislative director, Audra Riding, confirmed to The Light that she has been in touch with the Inspector General’s Office and that the investigation will take place.
To aid the investigation, Montigny has released the most detailed timeline yet of behind-the-scenes communications between legislators, university officials, and representatives of state agencies — including the UMass Building Authority and the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) — which were responsible for purchasing the now-deserted arts campus. This information was provided, along with a letter, to Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro and to The Light.
“I have never observed such an obnoxious example of the exploitation of public resources during my time as a legislator,” wrote Montigny in the letter. “Over twenty years of taxpayer investments into this facility must not be squandered.”
According to its original lease, the university could purchase the Star Store building for $1 after 20 years of lease and maintenance payments, but instead delayed the purchase and signed a one-year extension pressed by Montigny that lasted until August 2022.
For the duration of the previous academic year, (until students were ordered to vacate in August 2023) the art college did not have any lease agreement. Ultimately, funding was not made available in this year’s budget for rent payments on the Star Store after the line item was eliminated in the Senate. Montigny’s office said that continuing to pay rent would be a misuse of funds after more than 20 years of lease payments that opened the purchase option.
Students of the College of Visual and Performing Arts — which was largely housed in the Star Store campus of downtown New Bedford — say they are not receiving basic services since the campus’ closure, including regular class meetings or access to necessary tools for their artistic studies, such as kilns, painting studios, and workshop space. Instead, the university has rushed to relocate many students into a former Bed Bath & Beyond storefront at the Dartmouth mall (which is not fully permitted or occupiable) or into ill-equipped classrooms on the main campus, students say.
Now the Inspector General’s Office — an independent agency that searches for fraud, waste, and abuse of public funds or property — will audit all expenses put toward the Star Store since its original contract expired, in 2021. Depending on its findings, the Inspector General’s Office can offer guidance on legislative recourse, but also has some powers to restore money through civil recoveries, restitutions, and settlements if there is evidence of a crime.
After reviewing the timeline information that Montigny shared with the Inspector General and The Light, new revelations have surfaced about communications between state agencies and university officials, as well as some of their plans that were disclosed to Montigny.
Among the new information, Montigny says that DCAMM officials communicated in early 2021 — several months before the original lease expired — that the agency did not intend to purchase the building for $1. Instead, the agency sought a new, 10-year lease that would no longer include a purchase option, which would forsake the university’s plan to own the historic New Bedford building.
On Friday, a DCAMM spokesperson told The Light in an email that the agency would not agree to an on-the-record interview in response to questions about the Star Store.
The agency’s plan for a new, 10-year lease did not happen, and in August of 2021 DCAMM and UMass Dartmouth signed a one-year lease extension that included $1.9 million in rent payments rather than assuming ownership for $1.
DCAMM, which oversees capital investments in education, transportation, and real estate on behalf of the Commonwealth, would also miss the purchase deadline in 2022 (after the lease extension), so Gov. Baker signed a law putting the UMass Building Authority in charge of the purchase.
When the building authority attempted to execute the purchase in August 2022, it was rejected by the Star Store’s owner, Paul Downey, because the deadline had passed.
Montigny’s timeline also shows that the senator was in communication with university and DCAMM officials far in advance of both deadlines to purchase the Star Store. Almost two years before the original lease’s expiration, in October 2019, the senator had a meeting with UMass Dartmouth’s then-Chancellor, Robert Johnson, and advised the university on the purchase option.
Chancellor Mark Fuller, in an April 2021 meeting, was in support of exercising the purchase agreement, according to Montigny. But that same spring, in 2021, DCAMM officials seemed unaware of the purchase agreement, Montigny said. On April 26, 2021, DCAMM told Montigny it would not purchase the building, Montigny said.
By the end of this long exchange of meetings, stated intentions, and purchase deadlines, Chancellor Fuller announced that the CVPA students and faculty must vacate the Star Store on Aug. 14 of this year. That was only two weeks before classes were set to begin, and one week after the most recent budget passed (with no rent allocation).
Since then, there has not been a permanent plan communicated to students about the school’s future.
Recent news affecting arts students
Last week, Chancellor Fuller showed up to a meeting that graduate arts students in the painting department had scheduled with other administrators. Fuller came to the meeting, students said, to communicate a new development to the painters: that the former Bed Bath & Beyond storefront would not be able to accommodate any painting studios because of lack of proper ventilation.
During that meeting, painting students reached out to their peers, including Fallon Navarro, the graduate student who’s been leading their organizing efforts. At that time, on Wednesday, Fuller had not responded to multiple letters requesting a meeting about financial reimbursements for students and other demands.
Hearing that Fuller was meeting with the painters, Navarro dropped what she was doing, drove over to the main campus, and waited outside the room.
When the meeting ended, Navarro and other student organizers, including Jill McEvoy and Anis Beigzadeh, asked the chancellor why he hadn’t agreed to sit down with them to discuss financial reimbursements. The chancellor responded that he was looking for a time to meet with students, the organizers said.
Meanwhile, the news that the former Bed Bath & Beyond storefront can’t be used for painting is a worrying development for students. Multiple artistic disciplines, including ceramics, also require proper ventilation, and it’s not clear to students how many departments may be affected.
In addition, student organizers met with Mayor Jon Mitchell last Tuesday. They said the meeting was positive, and Mitchell has committed that he will continue communicating with university officials and the governor in support of keeping arts students in downtown New Bedford.
“There’s not much he can do to force UMass to give us an education,” said Navarro, but the students said they appreciate the mayor’s long-term focus on the New Bedford community: “Even if [the Star Store] doesn’t come back this semester or this year, it would be nice to have concrete answers about future plans,” Navarro said.
Lastly, portable trailers have been delivered to the main campus at UMass Dartmouth that may serve as temporary class space for arts students later this year. Professors noticed the double-wide trailers being stored behind a student dormitory. Currently, many classes and personal work spaces are competing for limited space in the CVPA’s building on campus.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: This story was amended on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, to correct the name of the UMass Dartmouth chancellor in 2019.
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