A plan to buy and renovate the former Mathews Bros. showroom on Spring Street  appears to be moving quickly, according to representatives of the citizen group leading the effort, but a provision of the plan that would have the city buy the building and fund a basic renovation has received mixed reviews within the City Council.

Councilor Lewis Baker raised the topic during the Feb. 16 Council session, saying he was “taken aback” to learn that the group expected the city to buy the property and renovate it. To this end, he asked the Council to clarify what the city would contribute to the project. “It’s got to cost $2 million to buy and renovate this building,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s fair to send these people off for five or six months for nothing.”

Baker said his estimate was based on the building’s $1.3 million list price, which Councilor Roger Lee promptly challenged. The sale price of the building couldn’t be known yet, he said.

Lee said he wanted to see the group’s proposal to judge if it was viable before making a commitment. Support from Councilors Mike Hurley and Eric Sanders appeared to be less contingent.

“I‘m not surprised at all. I’m excited,” said Sanders, who prefaced the statement by saying he had run his election campaign around the prospect of an events center. Comparing the purchase of the Mathews Bros. building to the city’s $299,000 purchase earlier this month of a piece of land adjoining Belfast Common, he said, “I would think as a citizen we would look 10, 20 years down the road [and see that the Mathews Bros. building is] something we should look at owning, if for nothing else than to hold onto and sell later for a potential profit.”

According to Ruth Gelsinger, chairwoman of the Belfast Civic Center Committee, the group plans to bring a proposal to the City Council March 7 that includes a request that the city buy the Mathews Bros. property and fund the initial renovation.

The BCCC spun out of an earlier city-sponsored effort to bring a performing arts and events center to Belfast. A city committee dedicated to the task produced a feasibility study last year that focused on the Mathews Bros. showroom. The City Council subsequently backed away from the project, looking for an outside group to take the lead.

Councilor Mike Hurley asked the Council to consider the roots of the BCCC, beginning with similar efforts dating back to 1983, mentions of an events or performing arts venue in several reports commissioned by the city, leading to the city committee and the feasibility study. “We didn’t say it’s a dumb idea, we said where’s the group? … Now the group has formed and I’m ready to actively consider their recommendations,” he said.

Baker argued that the discussion should not be limited to the initial costs but take into consideration contributions the city might be asked to make three to five years from now. Mayor Walter Ash noted that capital projects historically have been in the budget rather than drawn from surplus.

After the meeting, Gelsinger said she hadn’t expected a promise of financial assistance from the Council. “Until they see a proposal, they can’t,” she said. “We agreed to do the proposal, to do the work and get it out there. That’s fair.”