The city of Belfast has foreclosed on the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped building — formerly Crosby High School — for an unpaid sewer bill, and may seek a judicial determination that the building now belongs to the city.

According to City Manager Joe Slocum, the city foreclosed on the property in July because of the former owner’s failure to pay a sewer lien.  He described the foreclosure process as happening automatically and said he was unaware until recently that it had occurred.

The outstanding sewer bill was around $700, but Slocum said the city’s decision to take legal action — made after an executive session of the City Council Nov. 16 — came out of concern that NTWH had become unwilling or unable to maintain the landmark downtown building.

A city-commissioned engineering study of the building done in July found broken and outdated windows, holes in the roof membrane, water damage to both the exterior masonry and the interior walls, inadequate ventilation and a mold problem.

The report stated that the building needed a total of $1.5 million in repairs. Asked what, if any, work would need to be done immediately by the city, Slocum said the mold was a major concern.

Inspectors found extensive evidence of mold on the first floor of the building and took air samples containing as much as 400 times the maximum number of spores one would expect to find in a well-maintained building. Slocum said he had been inside the building a dozen or so times, and recently the problem appeared to have become worse.

According to the report, mold remediation would have cost $67,000.

Slocum said the failure to pay a sewer bill was just one of several indications NTWH might not have the money or interest in maintaining the property.

Last summer, the city mowed the overgrown lawn around the old high school after numerous complaints from neighbors and, according to Slocum, a number of failed attempts to get NTWH to do the work.

Slocum said the city is acting as though it holds the title to the building, but is taking legal action partly in the hope that NTWH will take note and resume communication with the city.

And for the time being the organization has.

On Nov. 17, Slocum reported that City Attorney Bill Kelly had spoken with an attorney for NTWH, who offered assurances suggesting that the problems with the property could be resolved out of court.

“They’ve apparently got much more religion in the last 24 hours than they’ve had in the last 36 months,” said Slocum.

Speaking on Nov. 23, Kelly said he was hoping to get a response in the coming week. The action to “perfect the title,” as the judicial procedure is known, is done to safeguard any investments the city may make in the building.

“Sometimes people don’t get real until there’s finally something where they’re going to lose control of the situation,” he said.

VillageSoup called NTWH’s New York office several times, but no one answered the phone and it was unclear if our attempts to leave a message were successful. We also attempted to contact members of the organization by e-mail, but at the time of publication had not received a response.

Slocum acknowledged that the city had shown an interest in the building prior to Tuesday’s decision to seek a judicial ruling on ownership — the engineering study that detailed the condition of the building was done to determine if the former High School could be converted to a civic or performing arts venue. But Slocum said the latest action was unrelated.

He said the city’s position on a civic center had not changed since the Council determined that an outside organization should take the lead, and he hadn’t seen any movement on the issue in seven months. Slocum noted that proponents of a civic center had been eyeing the former Mathews Brothers’ showroom on Spring Street.

The decision to look at the Crosby School came after a discussion between Councilor Marina Delune and representatives of NTWH, in which she became aware that the owner might consider selling the building.

Prior to that conversation, civic center supporters had written off the old high school in the belief that NTWH was not interested in selling it. If the organization was, it was assumed the asking price would reflect the substantial amount of money NTWH put into the building a decade ago.

The prospect of a renovated Crosby School, though not the first choice of civic center proponents, seemed to appeal to a wider audience.

“It’s fair to say that there are people in Belfast who are not exactly interested in seeing the city invest in a civic center, but if the civic center was in Crosby, they were singing a different tune,” Slocum said. “And that was because of their love of the building.”

But Slocum made it a point to say the recent action by the city was strictly to ensure that the building didn’t slip into a condition beyond repair.

“The city has not made any decision that [the former Crosby High School] has a future city use. That decision has not been made, period,” he said. “What the city has decided is that that’s a very important property in the city and it needs to be used in a positive way in the community. And the concern has been, for several years, that the former owner has not been in a position to take care of the needs of the property.”

Among several city councilors, there was a similar mix of frustration and concern.

“We don’t want to be unfair to the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped and we know that it’s a worthy organization that has done valuable work, but we also don’t want to see the building fall into the condition that it was in when NTWH purchased it,” said Delune.

“… This is an action we took to get their attention in a very serious way so we can have some serious conversation,” she said.

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