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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Finance panel signs off on Kemper-Gunn House lease, but revenue at issue

Published 7:06 am, Thursday, July 10, 2014

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  • Matthew Mandell, a member of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Committee and Chamber of Commerce executive director, displays for finance board members a picture of the Kemper-Gunn House that he pulled off the wall in the Town Hall lobby to illustrate a point Wednesday night. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News
    Matthew Mandell, a member of the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Committee and Chamber of Commerce executive director, displays for finance board members a picture of the Kemper-Gunn House that he pulled off the wall in the Town Hall lobby to illustrate a point Wednesday night. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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The numbers of the proposed Kemper-Gunn House lease didn't quite add up for the Board of Finance Wednesday night, but the panel granted conditional approval anyway.

In a 4-1 decision, the finance board voted to "accept the ground lease as written subject to the renegotiation of the language concerning the 10-percent net profit provision to the town, conditional upon the approval of the Board of Selectmen," Chairman Jonathan Pincavage said.

The saga of debate and official action over saving the historic Queen Anne-era house on Church Lane from demolition and moving it to the town's Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street will continue tonight when the lease will be considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Selectman Helen Garten, who also chairs the Kemper-Gunn Advisory Committee, presented details of the 98-year lease agreement to the finance board.

"I can tell you this lease was very heavily, very painstakingly negotiated," she said.

Several financiers, however, were not happy with the arrangements, particularly noting that profitability to the town did not appear to be the committee's priority in preparing the lease.

The lease calls for $15,000 in annual rent to the town, which can increase only as much as 3 percent each year beginning after seven years, or 10 percent of the developer's profits above cost commitments -- whichever is the larger amount.

"If the venture is successful, we will continue to share in that success," Garten said.

The arrangement provides preferential treatment for smaller business tenants, with priority given to Fairfield County enterprises.

Finance board member Tom Lasersohn, however, who raised numerous concerns, pointed out that developer David Waldman can potentially refinance the project -- in which he is investing $2.5 million -- and thereby not technically show a profit. He also noted that Waldman's friends and business associates could be chosen as tenants for the renovated structure and take advantage of the reduced rental fees.

"When you take a look at the value of this land used for commercial purpose ... the 15K is really a pittance," said Lasersohn, who cast the dissenting vote.

"It strikes me that this is a great deal, potentially, for the tenant and not such a great deal for the town, especially going out 98 years," he said.

Garten and other proponents of the project, however, noted that the historic value of saving the house, coupled with positive commercial and aesthetic advantages to downtown, are more important than the financial component.

"It's part of our heritage," said Matthew Mandell, the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce executive director and a Kemper-Gunn Advisory Committee member, who took a large picture of the house off the wall in the Town Hall lobby and displayed it at the podium. "It's part of our spirit in Westport."

"It's not about the financial returns specifically," he said.