The more you scratch the surface of how a popular and successful arts college could have been quickly and quietly removed from downtown New Bedford, the more the path leads to two obscure state agencies.
The UMass Building Authority (UMBA) and the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM).
Finding out what happened has taken some digging because no one involved — not the University of Massachusetts, not the state bureaucracy, not the elected public officials of the South Coast — are telling all that they know about a process that has been largely hidden from the public.
But it’s like pulling a string that leads to the inner workings of state government. It’s all there.
UMBA was established in 1960 to build UMass facilities that could not be financed by student tuition and fees. It originally concerned itself with things like student dorms, dining halls and athletic facilities.
But as the cost of higher education grew exponentially in recent decades, UMBA moved into building and managing university academic buildings, laboratories and other infrastructure that had historically been funded directly by the state government. It’s even ventured into public-private partnerships in recent years as the privatization of state government trends have blossomed.
DCAMM is a part of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance that is responsible for the state’s “capital planning, public building construction, facilities management and real estate services.” It has been headed since January by a guy named Matthew Gorzkowicz, the secretary of Administration and Finance, a preeminent position in Gov. Maura Healey’s cabinet.
Acronyms are very useful in hiding things and UMBA and DCAMM are nothing if not good at hiding things. Here’s what some other string pulling has revealed.
None other than UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Mark Fuller himself says that UMBA and DCAMM would not let the local university purchase the Star Store for $1. This in spite of the fact that legislation authored by New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny gave it that right when its 20-year lease with Star Store owner Paul Downey expired on July 14, 2022. Montigny has also blasted the agencies for their role in the CVPA leaving New Bedford.
This kind of arm-twisting, in the case of UMBA, can definitely be traced back to UMass President Martin Meehan and the 11 appointed members of UMBA, five of whom are trustees of the University of Massachusetts. Anyone who doesn’t think Meehan has a hand in who gets on these boards and agencies doesn’t know politics.
The other person who would most likely be involved in UMBA appointments in recent times is former eight-year governor Charlie Baker. Baker is a guy who wants to run government like a private business if there ever was one, and his public education philosophy no doubt has had a lot to do with DCAMM’s and UMBA’s determination to remove the Star Store from the state and university’s inventory of buildings. I like to think even Baker, however, would have realized that what UMBA in particular has been trying to do doesn’t really make good business sense.
The Star Store, of course, is the neoclassical 1915-built former department store in downtown New Bedford where the College of Visual and Performing Arts has been located since 2001. Before that, the CVPA’s artisan programs were located in buildings just outside the center city for several decades, and before that they had been part of the privately operated Swain School, also just outside the New Bedford business district. The arts have been in the city a long, long time, which makes Chancellor Fuller’s abrupt decision to pull them out two weeks before the semester was to begin all the more disgraceful.
The opening of the CVPA in 2001 in downtown New Bedford is nearly universally credited by locals with playing a key role in the revival of the downtown the last two decades by bringing fine arts students and faculty into the heart of the long-depressed central commercial district. None of that mattered to UMBA or DCAMM.
According to Fuller, UMBA and DCAMM have formulas through which they assess the cost of all university buildings, and they know that structures older than 50 years are too expensive to maintain.
But the Star Store’s maintenance needs are not any worse than those at the main campus in Dartmouth. The UMass Dartmouth principal campus has almost $700 million in deferred maintenance for its 57-year-old campus so I’m not sure why the $70 million in maintenance needed for the 108-year-old Star Store is any more unaffordable.
But UMBA and DCAMM are nothing if not determined.
When I asked UMass Dartmouth why it missed the July 14, 2022, deadline for informing Downey that it would purchase the building for $1, a UMD spokesman referred me back to the above-mentioned state agencies.
“You must ask DCAMM or UMBA who had authority on this matter,” UMass Dartmouth spokesman Ryan Merrill wrote to me.
DCAMM oversaw the Star Store process for the original 20-year lease that UMass Dartmouth missed the boat on taking in August of 2021. Then, Sen. Montigny and former Gov. Baker wrote a state budget extending the lease for a year. And it was Baker who wanted to bring UMBA into the process for directing UMass to buy the building.
Still pulling string here.
There is more evidence than just Fuller’s comments that UMBA and DCAMM were driving the removal of the CVPA campus from New Bedford.
An Aug. 4, 2023, letter to Gov. Healey herself from developer Downey also points to the alphabet agencies’ involvement.
In the Downey letter — which on behalf of The New Bedford Light I’ve obtained through a public records request — the local real estate powerhouse developer offered to give the Star Store to UMass Dartmouth despite the fact the university had missed the July 2022 deadline for taking it.
“It has long been my intention to gift or convey the property for $1 despite DCAMM missing their opportunity to exercise the option in accordance with the lease,” Downey wrote.
Downey in the same letter asked the governor to replace a section of the Fiscal Year 2023 state budget — which she ended up signing without the requested change five days later — with a provision that would convey the building to the university.
The part of the budget that Downey was seeking to replace — Section 79 — would have forbidden the university from paying for any further maintenance on the building, and it would have required the inspector general to do a study on why deferred maintenance on the Star Store had never been undertaken. Fuller has cited Section 79 as one of the reasons he had to abandon the downtown New Bedford building.
Who could have inserted that little foreboding message into the state budget?
Well, Montigny has sharply criticized Downey for allegedly failing to do badly needed maintenance during the 20 years of his state lease.
Downey was paid $63 million in lease payments for the structure over the 20-year course of the agreement. He had renovated the former four-story store into a college for $21 million, according to his website, Downey Development. The debt service on those renovations was over at the end of the 20-year lease, Montigny’s office has said.
UMass Dartmouth officials say that about $415,000 a year of the $63 million were used to pay for “common maintenance” such as general upkeep of the building. The payments by both the university and to Downey increased over the course of the 20 years.
It is not clear to me what is the distinction between common maintenance and deferred maintenance but officials have said that the structure needs both a new roof and HVAC system. Others say the structure’s needs are exaggerated.
My string pulling has brought you deep into the weeds of Downey and UMass Dartmouth business. But I’m just trying to let you know that there’s a lot of money flowing around on this deal. Of course, there’s also a lot of students’ lives and a city’s economic future involved.
Suffice to say Downey got a lot of money and so did the university. Did they spend it wisely and did they fulfill their responsibilities to the state and the students?
The university has argued the state was not giving it enough money even for the “common maintenance.” It will be interesting to hear what Downey has to say about the big-ticket maintenance. He has said through a spokesperson he will speak “at the appropriate time,” whenever that is.
The Aug. 4, 2023, letter from Downey to Healey was provided to The New Bedford Light by DCAMM. My public records request had asked for a copy of all written communications from Downey to the agency during the last two years.
UMBA denied my request for the same types of communication, arguing that they are protected from public disclosure as part of deliberations with legal counsel and by common law court precedent. The Light is appealing the decision.
Neither of these state bureaucracies have been anxious to explain their thinking on a decision that affects hundreds of UMass Dartmouth students as well as the hundreds of thousands of Greater New Bedford residents as a whole.
Almost through pulling string here.
Two weeks ago, I asked both DCAMM and UMBA if they had been lobbied by Downey when he hired two Boston lobbyists for a total of $90,000 over the past two years. DCAMM says they can find no evidence they were; UMBA didn’t bother answering my email question. It looks to me like what the lobbyists really did for Downey was to prepare legal advice on how to keep himself in the best financial position as this UMass Dartmouth lease wound down.
Gov. Healey’s office is not much better.
Asked if the governor had forwarded the Downey letter to either the UMass Building Authority, DCAMM or Montigny, her office did not say.
It offered the following general statement on Healey’s position. She’d previously managed to avoid almost all comment about UMass Dartmouth’s decision to close the New Bedford college since it was announced a month ago.
“Our administration is committed to supporting the economic vitality of New Bedford and the region. We have heard the concerns raised by local officials and the community, and we continue to be in discussion about the steps forward for the Star Store building.”
Just an observation here. Maura Healey so far seems like a very low-key, almost invisible governor. She’s just not much of a major presence in the media, even on important issues like the immigration housing crisis.
Since Downey asked for a significant last-minute change to the state budget, it would only seem responsible for the governor (or her office or DCAMM if this issue did not rise to her individual attention) to ask the parties closest to the matter what they thought.
I’m assuming she informed DCAMM because it is the agency that sent me the letter. I do not know if they already had it because of a CC because Downey, as I said, is also not taking questions. Maybe it’s just that Downey addressed the DCAMM letter to the governor for maximum political effect?
One thing that’s clear. Both Gov. Healey and the House funded another year of lease payments to Downey in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget. The Senate did not fund it because Montigny took the money out. He has said he will not fund a lease to a private developer who did not do maintenance on the building over the last two decades. Montigny’s view prevailed in the reconciliation budget between the Senate and House.
Why did Gov. Healey and Reps. Tony Cabral and Chris Hendricks, who have had the Star Store in their districts, give in to Montigny? They have said it’s always been his venture and they deferred. Even state Rep. Chris Markey, who was lobbied by Downey’s company and who takes the university’s side that the building is too expensive, deferred to Montigny despite Downey’s request to him to fund the lease in 2022.
Everyone connected to this vital public interest to both the university and New Bedford prefers to do their business behind closed doors, it seems.
Public relations professional Liz Isherwood, who is acting as a conduit to Mr. Downey, did tell me, however, that the developer/property owner’s position has not changed.
“He stands by his letters,” she said.
I say letters because DCAMM also released to me a second letter that Downey had written. This one was to Daniel Cordeau, the director of leasing for DCAMM on Aug. 11, 2022, or three days before the lease extension ran out last year. In this letter, Downey asserted his rights to the building if the lease ran out without UMass Dartmouth buying it for $1.
That seems to contradict the letter he wrote to Gov. Healey last month. How can Downey say he continues to be willing to gift the building to UMass Dartmouth this year when last year he said the building remains his because UMass Dartmouth didn’t meet the deadline for the transfer?
The seeming contradiction seems to have to do with Montigny’s war with Downey.
The state senator has said that if UMass absolutely will not accept the building in downtown New Bedford, he intends to write legislation assigning it to a different state agency.
With the chairmanship of the Senate Ways and Means Committee being Democrat Mike Rodrigues from just down the road in Westport, and Gov. Healey also being a Democrat, Montigny may well have the power to do that. But the evidence is also that UMBA, and possibly DCAMM, might still be determined to stop a transfer to any state entity.
What a mess.
You can see why people hate politics. There’s all this kind of cross-current and hidden policies and maneuvers driving things behind the scenes. None of which is at a level where the people who care about the CVPA remaining in downtown New Bedford can see it.
Downey’s letter of last year seems like it might have been an attempt to obtain a second payment of $2.7 million for a second year of a lease extension as he states that it remains his “priority” for the CVPA to remain at the Star Store. Montigny, who thinks the developer and former campaign contributor to him, has already made enough money, was never going to agree to that.
Montigny’s point person on the Star Store isn’t buying anything in either of Downey’s letters.
Audra Riding, general counsel and legislative director for our longtime state senator, said that DCAMM did not inform any of the legislators of Downey’s Aug. 4 letter, and that the agency has never been “transparent” about anything to do with the CVPA campus being in New Bedford.
Riding found Downey’s letter posturing, probably advised by his lobbyist, who she said would have known that the governor does not have the power to change line items in the budget. And that it was sent when it was too late to change a line item. Aug. 4 was more than a month after the end of the previous fiscal year and the Fiscal Year 2023 budget was weeks overdue.
“It sounds like nothing more than a charade from someone who used a technical notice clause as a shield against the building’s lawful transfer but then suddenly sought to pivot once the dollar signs vanished,” Riding wrote me.
Montigny had tried multiple times to shepherd the transfer of the building, she said. Students were literally being rained on as the developer pocketed the lease payments.
Riding seems to be on the same page as others in the community, who have begun to speculate that wrongdoing may have occurred. “At some point, accountability has to occur and an investigation is warranted,” she said. Former Mayor Scott Lang has called for Attorney General Andrea Campbell to be in a room with all the involved parties in order to quickly reverse the CVPA removal.
Riding said that Montigny continues to discuss solutions with Administration and Finance Secretary Gorzkowicz, who at one time worked for him when he was Senate Ways and Means chairman.
“We understand from UMBA’s counsel and the (gubernatorial) administration that a transfer is still on the table,” she wrote.
I wonder if that’s the same UMBA counsel who denied The New Bedford Light’s public records request to see its communications with Downey.
I wish I could say I had confidence this fiasco is going to be worked out. I don’t.
I’m out of string for now.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.