PLYMOUTH – The city has regained control of the management of the Simes House in Manomet after the Select Board voted not to renew its contract with the non-profit group that had been responsible for operating it for the past five years.
In a 4-1 vote on July 12, the council severed ties with Manomet Village Common, Inc. (MVCI) for what the majority of council said was their failure to properly maintain the 1863 building and find new sources of revenue to maintain the property without outside help.
The vote took place two days before the existing contract expires on June 14. Council then voted to seek candidates for a seven-member task force to be chaired by City Manager Derek Brindisi.
“We need to have the keys in hand on the 14th,” said Betty Cavacco, chairwoman of the Select Board. “It’s a disaster, and it’s time to stop the bleeding and do what we were elected to do, and that is to represent the taxpayers of Plymouth.”
MCVI, a private, registered nonprofit, is the second group to take on the task of trying to operate the home for profit since the city acquired the property through a tax grab in 2009.
The first group, the Simes House Foundationhanded over responsibility to the city in 2015. MVCI incorporated the following year and signed its five-year contract with the city in 2017.
The house received a Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Award for its adaptive reuse and restoration in 2018.
Winning work:Simes House Receives Preservation Award
The building includes four lounges intended for use as event space and meeting rooms, four office spaces on the second floor, and two apartments on the third designated as affordable housing.
MVCI President Donna Curtin told the board that the all-volunteer organization made a profit of $13,752 on the property in 2019.
“We were making progress and then the pandemic hit,” she said. “We have worked very hard during this time of the pandemic and the rather overwhelming impact it has had on our financial model.”
The period of the pandemic has seen an almost complete turnaround in board membership, which has led to the need to get the affairs of the association in order.
John Mahoney, the only Select Board member not to vote in favor of ending the contract, sympathized with MVCI’s recent history.
“You put your feet up, and then what happens in March (2020)? The world has been shut down,” he said.
He made a motion, which failed to win a second, to extend the contract for another year.
“I prefer to give them the one-year extension to bring all the stakeholders together and see what the best use is,” he said.
How much did Plymouth spend on Simes House?
Through combined votes at the town hall in 2011 and 2015, $4 million in Community Preservation Act funds were appropriated to repair and repaint the exterior of the house and its grounds for $1.5 million , followed by $2.5 million to rehabilitate, restore and renovate the interior.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone who thinks the building is worth (what) we spent on it,” Cavacco said. “I don’t want to spend a ton of money because we spent a ton of money.”
The tenant of the building, Victoria Costa, told the council that she feared being forced to find new accommodation following the vote. She said she was surprised to find out how much had been spent on the house given its overall condition.
Board member Charlie Bletzer was among the board members who toured the property prior to the meeting. He agreed with Costa’s assessment.
“What I saw when I visited was an empty building,” Bletzer said. “It was clean, but I saw the water damage…the grounds outside are neglected. I know you tried, and I don’t know if you’re in over your head, but you need help out there.
Curtin acknowledged the concerns and complaints, but said MVCI was best equipped to help the city explore better uses for the site over the coming year.
“It’s empty, and we need to bring it back to life, and it takes what we’re asking for right now, which is more time,” she said. “You need a tentative plan, and we’re your best bet.”
She added that neither the house nor the grounds were empty of guests, with many events and gatherings being held there before and after the pandemic.
COVID explains lack of activity at Simes House
The effect of COVID restrictions, however, not only suspended events at home for a time, but also emptied offices. The shift to remote work during the pandemic remains popular among employees and employers, and demand for office space has held steady with no expectation of a sudden, robust rebound from most accounts.
The pandemic not only halted revenue, but also payments due to the city through a combined quarterly user fee and a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement of just over $1,000.
In early 2021, the Select Board voted to retroactively waive all payments due and payable in 2020 and all payments due and payable in 2021 through June 2022. A quarterly payment had been made in 2020.
While Curtin and others argued on behalf of the band, some members of its board of directors felt that the contract should not be pursued for the good of the house and the city.
Karen Buechs, who like Helm had served on the first iteration of the council, is currently a member. She said the group of volunteers was too small with too few resources to do the work they were tasked with.
“Two groups took over the house to try to succeed. I think they were sincere in trying to help in any way they could, but it’s time for the city to give it some serious thought,” she said.
Community Preservation Committee (CPC) Chairman Bill Keohan, who also served (or serves – he and Curtin disagree on his status) spoke to the board as a member of the CPC and the municipal assembly.
“I have to defect from my role in the CPC and say that I will refrain from any further leases,” he said, adding that he supported the task force idea. “My advice is not to sign.”
What is the next step for Maison Simes?
With the vote, the city is now responsible for insurance and other costs associated with the building, in addition to finding itself in the role of owner.
Some board members in favor of creating the task force to review the uses of the property hoped that all seven positions would be filled at their next meeting. In the meantime, Brindisi said he had asked relevant municipal departments to visit the site and report on its condition and needs.
The council also authorized Brindisi to obtain cost estimates on hiring an engineering company to undertake a more detailed review of the repairs to be made, future work to be done and their cost.
As noted by Keohan and building committee chairman David Peck, the restoration cost $100,000 less than the $4 million budgeted for work on the house. This remaining amount is available to help fund further work there.
Among the possible uses discussed were relocating the Manomet branch library to the building or using it as a place for residents to conduct at least some town hall business without always having to travel miles north to do so.
Brindisi told the tenant at the meeting that he and others believed transferring the leases from MVCI to the city would not be a problem.
“No one is being kicked out,” he said.