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City officials deny leading selection of Laconia State School developer

A sale would present a major development opportunity, but also a potential risk.
City officials deny leading selection of Laconia State School developer
Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus (center) and Jared Nylund, a property asset manager with the department, answer questions about the sale of the former Laconia State School at the Executive Council meeting on Dec. 7. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Laconia city officials disputed statements Wednesday from the governor and a state commissioner that they led the choice of a proposed buyer for the former Laconia State School who has no experience developing the kind of massive planned village she’s promising to create on the 220-acre site.

And the head of a commission that has spent five years creating a redevelopment plan said the commission played no role in reviewing proposals or selecting a buyer, contrary to statements from Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Charlie Arlinghaus.

The Executive Council was expected to vote Wednesday on the department’s proposed $21.5 million purchase and sale agreement with Robynne Alexander of Manchester, whose development experience in New Hampshire includes a seven-unit rental property in Hampton and a multi-use building renovation in Manchester that is three years behind schedule and the subject of a lawsuit. Alexander told the Bulletin Monday the Laconia development proposal, which includes 1,300 housing units, a hotel and conference center, and medical facilities, would be her largest. She said her investors, whom she’s not named, are prepared to put at least $500 million into the property.

The council voted instead to table the proposed agreement after Laconia’s mayor and city manager raised concerns in a letter early Wednesday morning about details of the purchase and sale agreement and Alexander’s qualifications. In their letter, they cited a Bulletin news report that appeared Tuesday about Alexander’s development experience, an investor who is suing her, and liens placed on her Manchester properties for unpaid taxes and a contractor’s bill totaling $430,000. Alexander has paid those debts.

Arlinghaus told councilors he had not reviewed Alexander’s personal finances.

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Mayor Andrew Hosmer and City Manager Kirk Beattie told the Bulletin Wednesday that they had not raised their concerns earlier because they had been unaware of Alexander’s background prior to reading the article.

They said that while city Planning Director Dean Trefethen was part of the team that reviewed proposed development designs, he was not involved in discussions about Alexander’s professional experience or finances. Hosmer and Beattie said too that the Department of Administrative Services told Trefethen he was to keep committee conversations confidential.

Gov. Chris Sununu described the city’s role differently Wednesday.

“The city planner has been involved in all of this and has had all the ability to review financial information and all of that,” he said. “The city has had all the tax information.”

Arlinghaus, noting that the city chose Trefethen as its representative on the committee, did too.

“No one was meant to share outside of the committee in order to keep this confidential, but that is quite literally why we asked the city to designate someone to serve,” he said following the council meeting. “It could have been the mayor or the manager or the planner or anyone. They picked the planner who is literally part of city government.”

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Selling the land has been a top priority for Sununu, who took control of marketing and selling the site from the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission last year. The state has tried selling the property for more than a decade, and Alexander’s $21.5 million offer far exceeds what the state thought it could get considering problems with the site.

A sale would rid the state of a property that it says is costing $400,000 a year to maintain and present a major development opportunity to Laconia and the region. But a sale also poses risks for Laconia if a buyer develops only the prime section along Route 106 and not the rest of the property, which has nearly 30 dilapidated buildings that must be removed or restored.

Sununu called Hosmer after receiving the letter, telling him he was upset that he and Beattie had not raised their concerns earlier. In a text message, Hosmer said the governor used the word “incompetent.”

Asked about the conversation, Sununu said: “To be clear, the fact that his team appeared not to be talking to each other or asking questions when they had questions. It just looks like incompetence when you’re coming and your team, who has driven the process, is now writing a letter to slow down the process.”

It just looks like incompetence when ... your team, who has driven the process, is now writing a letter to slow down the process.

Arlinghaus, whose office has led the review of proposals and negotiations with Alexander, also described the city as very involved in selecting a proposal and a buyer. He said the same of the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission.

“It’s a team … a very broad team,” he told councilors, “of public works engineers, the city planner, redevelopment commission, and people with a lot of experience who met with (potential buyers), talked to them and became aware of them.” He also said the review team included “representatives of the commission.”

In an interview following the meeting, George Bald, chairperson of the commission, said that is inaccurate. One member of the commission, which stopped its work after Sununu took control of the property sale, did participate but not as a representative of the group, Bald said.

“The (commission’s) seven-member board had nothing to do with selecting somebody, nor was there a vote in selecting anybody,” Bald said.

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This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. (The headline on this page was added by Granite Memo.)