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Derry property divides council

DERRY — Over the past two decades, town officials have struggled with plans to revive Derry's flagging downtown.

Last year, the Town Council gave its approval to purchase several pieces of property between Central Street and Sawyer Court to package together with an existing town-owned property in the area. After the purchases were complete, the town would then put out a request for proposals for the development of the property.

Although the previous Town Council approved the purchase of a multi-family building at 8 Central Street last year for $173,000, this year's dramatically reconfigured Town Council shot down the purchase of a larger, eight-unit building on Sawyer Court last week.

The town had a purchase and sale agreement in place with Ron Varney for the purchase and was looking to close on the sale by June 1.

Town Administrator John Anderson went before the Town Council seeking $450,000 for the purchase as well as the razing of the building and the building on Central Street that was purchased last year.

The purchase price for the building itself was $375,000, and the money for the purchase and demolition of the buildings would have come from existing funds, including the town's land and building capital reserve fund and the town's assigned general fund balance.

During the public hearing on the proposed purchase, several residents questioned the wisdom of spending money on properties that are tucked back from the main road of West Broadway without having a clear development plan in place. It was also pointed out that there was a property in the middle of the proposed RFP land that the town has not yet been able to purchase.

Former town councilor Kevin Coyle said the Sawyer Court building is not in the most desirable section of town and its assessed value is only $260,000.

"That building pays tax revenue now and if you take it off the tax roll, there is a tax impact," said Coyle.

As part of the purchase and sales agreement with the town, Varney agreed to have the tenants of the eight units in the building out by May 15.

"Why are you speculating with my money?" Coyle asked the council. "That's the problem I have, that the previous council made the decision to speculate with my money."

Coyle said there have been several cases over the past decades where the town has spent money on downtown development to less than stellar results.

"If this was a good idea, a private developer would have come in already," said Coyle. "But they're not because it's not a good idea. It's speculation."

Not everyone who spoke at the public hearing was against the development plan.

Derry Downtown Committee member Michael Gendron said the town has to aim high if it wants to revitalize the downtown.

"Our motto for the downtown committee is to dream big," he said. "We have big dreams for what our downtown could be."

He asked the council to envision the downtown parcel as a medical building, college or low-impact manufacturing facility.

"The only way that will ever happen is if we market this space effectively, letting the world know through the RFP process that we are an economically friendly and welcoming community that invests in economic development," said Gendron. "This is exactly the time to invest in Derry's economic future and the key to success is to dream big."

Resident Kelly Martin said it was difficult to support the economic development plan without the town sharing solid plans for the property.

"Unless there is a solid, feasible plan demonstrating what this can do for us, you're just throwing darts blindly and I think that's crazy," said Martin.

Council Chairman Michael Fairbanks was the only councilor to oppose the purchase of the Central Court property.

Last week, he was joined by the council's three newly elected members — Al Dimmock, Mark Osborne and Tom Cardon — in voting against the purchase of the Sawyer Court property. Councilors Brad Benson, Neil Wetherbee and Phyllis Katsakiores supported the purchase.

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