Owning the Star Store would’ve cost UMass Dartmouth $7 million in expected maintenance over the next 10 years, according to a 2022 report obtained through a public records request. 

And a New Bedford official who toured the Star Store in September says he would budget about $17 million to $20 million to upgrade the building. 

Both figures are far less than the $75 million that UMass Dartmouth’s chancellor, Mark Fuller, cited in an open letter to The Light in late October. 

Fuller declined to speak with The Light this week about the cost discrepancy, but the $75 million price tag was his main explanation for why the university did not exercise the $1 purchase option for the Star Store — the downtown New Bedford arts campus that the university abruptly vacated in August.

“It was clear that owning the building would cost far more than anyone imagined,” Fuller wrote, saying that extensive deferred maintenance at the Star Store “could cost up to $75 million.”

Fuller wrote that the state’s Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAMM, provided the $75 million estimate. But The Light’s public records request to DCAMM shows that the agency’s recent estimates for maintenance at the Star Store were far lower.

One document, published in 2022 by an external consulting firm, Gordian, found that the expected cost of maintenance at the Star Store over the next decade was $7 million. 

An external consultant, Gordian, identified $7.0 million in identified maintenance at the Star Store in a 2022 report, which was provided by DCAMM. When asked, university officials were not able to provide any DCAMM communication or report indicating $75 million in maintenance needs — a figure cited by Chancellor Mark Fuller.

Beyond the next decade, the consultant’s report estimated another $19 million in potential costs from building components eventually breaking down. But experts contacted by The Light said this long-term analysis of potential maintenance, while helpful to decision-makers, would not be included in any good-faith estimate of capital expenditures. Both the state of Massachusetts and the city of New Bedford, for example, use five-year windows when estimating costs of capital planning and maintenance. 

Asked over email about where the $75 million figure came from, a spokesperson for UMass Dartmouth, Ryan Merrill, said there had been “several direct conversations” between the university and DCAMM, but could not provide any record of these conversations. Merrill also said that “cost escalation” since the 2022 report could drive up the price tag for maintenance.

The city’s assessment: Star Store ‘in fine shape, with two exceptions

For a second opinion, The Light reached out to Mark Champagne, who oversaw all capital projects and maintenance for the city of New Bedford and currently does so for the New Bedford school department. 

Champagne toured the Star Store on Sept. 27 at the direction of Mayor Jon Mitchell. The mayor wanted him to inspect the building because he had offered to have the city take ownership if the university were willing to return.

“It’s a farce,” Champagne said about the $75 million price quote from the university. “The building’s in fine shape, with two exceptions.” 

Those exceptions, also noted in the consultant’s report, are the roof and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Using current price quotes for similar roof and HVAC work happening across the school department and city, adjusted to the specifications of the Star Store, Champagne said he would budget between $17 million and $20 million for upgrades.

“I read some of the things in the press early on about the $75 million, so my assumption walking in was that it was going to be in horrible shape,” Champagne said. “That was not the case at all.”

“For a building that was used for 20 years as an educational facility, it’s in great shape,” he said. 

Champagne’s cost estimate is still higher than the 2022 consultant report, which he explained is because, along with some cost escalation, he would recommend more comprehensive work. The roof, for example, was budgeted for a “half-measure” — replacing only the outermost layer — whereas Champagne said, “if you’re gonna do it, get it all done.”

But his overall assessment: “If they handed you the keys to one of the offices anywhere in that building… you’d be very happy with your space.” 

The university’s $75 million price tag — which Merrill also said could be represented by $900 per square foot — did not make sense to Champagne.

What could spending $900 per square foot get you in today’s market? “I couldn’t even make it up,” Champagne said. “A new building. At that point it’s a new building.”

What about the costs of new green energy codes?

Chancellor Fuller’s open letter in October specifically cited “the state’s new accessibility and energy codes” as a major driver of the cost of deferred maintenance. These codes, often known as “green codes” or stretch codes, compel the state to adhere to the most strict environmental building standards. 

Merrill, the UMass Dartmouth spokesperson, also pointed to these new codes in an email: “Renovation costs would be higher given our need to adhere to the state’s new green building codes.” 

However, university officials have not made clear how much burden they anticipate from these codes, nor have they itemized their $75 million cost projections, obscuring how the codes might apply to this project. 

The Light asked Champagne, New Bedford’s expert on capital projects and maintenance, about the green codes. He said that most contractors in the state agree that the stretch codes add between 15% and 20% to the cost of renovation projects.

Champagne said he was not convinced that the green codes could make up the large gap between his own cost assessments and those from the university. 

Moreover, the city could help the university avoid the burden of these codes. In September, Mayor Mitchell offered to have the city hold the title to the Star Store, or to own the building on paper (though the university would have the responsibilities of ownership). The city would not be compelled to adhere to the strictest green-code standards (like the university or state would be), explained Champagne.

Merrill, of UMass Dartmouth, dismissed the idea of an ownership agreement with the city. “It does not matter who holds the building’s title,” Merrill said, “because UMass Dartmouth cannot afford to renovate the building or pay for the annual $1M operating costs.”

Mayor Mitchell provided a written statement on Wednesday about the situation:

“As I’ve said before, UMass Dartmouth’s decision to vacate the Star Store caught the City by surprise. The university did not alert us to the possibility that the program could end, much less ask us for financial or other assistance. I certainly wish they had reached out to us, as I believe the program’s derailment could have been averted. 

“But our focus now is on how we might rectify the situation,” the mayor added, “including through alternate ownership arrangements that could enable the program to resume at a lower cost to the state. We do not yet know whether the university is agreeable to this approach.”

Update on the arts students

Meanwhile, arts students continue to deal with the fallout of UMass Dartmouth’s exit from the Star Store only weeks before the fall semester began. The campus’ closure was a surprise to students and faculty, whose presence is credited with rebuilding downtown New Bedford’s arts economy across more than 20 years.

For graduate students, the relocation to the former Bed Bath & Beyond storefront has proved frustrating. Students said administrators have spent most of their time enforcing what cannot happen in the not-yet-fully-permitted retail space.

“We find out each week that there’s less and less that can actually happen in the building,” said Fallon Navarro, the lead organizer among the MFA students. “It feels terrible.”

Fallon Navarro, an MFA ceramics student who has led much of the student opposition to the abrupt closure of the New Bedford Star Store campus, speaks at rally last month. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

After a lack of proper ventilation stopped painting at the Bed Bath & Beyond, a professor reached out to students on Oct. 24 with the latest update: “any ceramic process beyond using bagged clay” would need approval from multiple administrators, including the College of Visual and Performing Arts dean himself. “This includes no torch drying of pots, no surface material mixing and testing, no spraying, no test kiln firing, no kiln firing, etc.,” read the email, which a student shared with The Light. 

Navarro confirmed that this means practically no ceramics can happen in the building. The professor acknowledged in the email that this might be “extremely frustrating.”

The next day, CVPA Dean Lawrence Jenkens emailed ceramics students himself. “Please send me a list of the materials you are or will use and the processes involved in them,” he wrote, and then informed students that the school still did not know what was allowed in the space, nor had it developed a safety plan.

“I hope we can establish a clear and definitive list of what we are allowed or not to do in that space. With that information, we can quickly develop a safety plan for the facility,” Jenkens wrote.

These restrictions at the Bed Bath & Beyond location have led more students to move into the CVPA’s building on the main campus. “There’s barely space there, so it’s not a good solution,” Navarro said.

All along, students’ rallying cry has been to get what they’ve paid for: the education, experiences, and services a graduate school normally would provide to launch their careers. 

Navarro said administrators have pushed back by saying students would still receive credits from this year, so students were in fact receiving what they paid for.

Navarro was not satisfied with this explanation. “You’re paying for the credits as opposed to the actual learning?” she asked incredulously. 

Now in their third month of classes without a solution, Navarro summarized the feeling among her and her classmates: “Not great.” 

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

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