Saturday, March 8, 2014
By Keith Edwards firstname.lastname@example.org
AUGUSTA -- Kennebec Arsenal owner and would-be developer Tom Niemann said his plan to renovate the historic but neglected riverside complex building-by-building will result in five of its eight buildings being redeveloped within the next 36 months.
This 2007 file aerial photo shows the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta.
Staff file photo by Joe Phelan
Niemann has owned the property since acquiring it from the state in 2007 and little has happened there beyond vandalism and deterioration.
State officials, who are reviewing the plan Nieman submitted last month, have expressed skepticism about the developer's latest efforts, saying they've heard such promises before. They have threatened a lawsuit against Niemann for his inaction on the property.
Niemann submitted the plan in response to a letter from the Office of the Maine Attorney General that threatened a lawsuit if his North Carolina firm, Niemann Capital, didn't take steps to prevent further damage to the property by Oct. 1.
State officials subsequently agreed to extend that deadline by three weeks, and Niemann said he submitted his plan for the complex on Oct. 22 -- the last day of the extended deadline.
Brenda Kielty, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the plan Niemann submitted is under review and had no further information.
State historian Earle Shettleworth has described the property as one of the most complete, best-preserved federal military arsenals from its pre-Civil War time period surviving in the country.
Niemann said state officials seem more focused on making sure the historic aspects of the buildings are renovated first, but he said no developer can afford to maintain a property just for its historic merits. He has proposed renovating the National Historic Landmark property one building at a time.
"By completing renovations with a building-by-building approach we will have people living in the buildings, using them and bringing life to the Arsenal complex," Niemann said. "In this way we will meet historic codes while invigorating the area economically."
Niemann said he believes his firm and the state will come to an understanding about the property shortly.
Shettleworth said Friday he could not discuss the Arsenal or Niemann, because the attorney general's office has told officials not to talk about the issue because it could be the subject of a lawsuit.
Niemann said he was at the Arsenal this past week, working with a contractor on the Gate House building at the lower entrance to the complex, which is between the Kennebec River and former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus off Hospital Street.
He said he is about to sign with a firm that will seek commercial tenants, and he is also looking at developing some of the property into housing for senior citizens.
He said work will start with the Gate House, then move on the barracks building, the riverside South Burleigh and North Burleigh buildings, and the Old Max building away from the river. He estimates those will all be complete within the next 36 months.
Niemann said he hasn't been able to focus on the project up until now because of the recession.
Niemann said state officials turned down his offer to tour the complex with him to see his progress, and so he could explain his plan. He said progress on the complex has included removing graffiti and cleaning up other damage by vandals, and that he has hired a caretaker.
He said he is focusing on getting the buildings weatherized and said interior renovations are planned over the winter.
Redevelopment of the project has languished since Niemann Capital bought it from the state in 2007 for $280,000.
Niemann, while acknowledging he hasn't been able to secure financing for the project because of the economic downturn, said he and his partners have invested some $32 million in Maine, including redeveloping of the Hathaway shirt mill in Waterville into the Hathaway Creative Center, which has 67 loft apartments and office space for multiple major tenants.
Niemann took out a building permit with the city of Augusta last November, for a plan to convert the barracks into a residential duplex. Documents filed with the city indicate he planned to spend about $40,000 on the project.
However, Niemann said he put that work on hold after the state expressed concern about his building-by-building approach.
Keith Edwards -- 621-5647