Athol school renovation plan extended

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-15-2023 4:49 PM

ATHOL – The Board of Planning and Community Development approved a two-year extension of the site plan approval given to NewVue Affordable Housing Corporation for part of its plan to convert the former Bigelow and Riverbend schools into housing.

Board approval was needed for NewVue’s proposal to build an approximately 22,000 square foot addition to connect the two school buildings while also providing 20 one-bedroom senior housing units. In total, the new development would give Athol 53 new units of housing.

NewVue and town officials hope that funding for the estimated $28 million project can be acquired before another extension is needed. Much of that money would come in the form of a state Low Income Housing Tax Credit award. James Linfield, real estate project developer for NewVue, told the Athol Daily News that the way this funding occurs in Massachusetts is a Qualified Application Plan, creating a competitive program to award tax credits that underlie the entire project. It raises approximately $10 million dollars or more for any project.

“The way Massachusetts has set it up, your project has to be fairly advanced in order to put an application in, and it’s in two phases,” Linfield said. “Normally, you have an application that you put in in the fall; it’s called a pre-application. Once you do that pre-application, you may or may not be invited into the full round.”

Finding the funding

Linfield said NewVue’s project has in fact been invited into the full round, the application for which was submitted on Jan. 18.

“We’re told by the state that they believe at this point that they will have made decisions by the end of April,” he continued. “There’s nothing in writing on that. That’s their goal, but it can vary. There are a crazy number of projects that are applying for a limited number of awards.”

Chances of being approved, Linfield added, often are less that 50 percent.

“That being said, what they’re looking at is how advanced is everything in your project. We have brought ours right up to the doorstep of what they’re looking for,” he said. “They have an approach where they want the minimum, but they don’t want you to go too far because they still want to have some level of input on what the final plan looks like.”

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According to Linfield, the state has hired architects to review the work done by NewVue’s architects.

“That’s why they don’t want your project to be fully fleshed out, because they don’t want you to waste the money if their architect wants some changes,” he said. “So, we were just assigned what they call a Lender Adviser, or a reviewing architect, which is great news.”

A great deal of work needs to be done to get the plans advanced, according to Linfield, particularly for existing buildings. Investigative work is done on the environmental conditions, structural conditions, and, in NewVue’s case, borings must be done due to the fact that plans call for a new building to be constructed. It’s also recommended that the developer find other sources of funding. Some of that money has indeed been added by way of a $1 million earmark inserted by Rep. Jim McGovern into the omnibus spending package passed by Congress in December. That, Linfield said, shows the state that the project has federal backing.

The town has also invested $400,000 from its allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act monies. Because the Bigelow and Riverbend school buildings are important to the town’s history, Linfield said, NewVue is applying for historical tax credits. He explained that, even if the tax credits are approved, the funds are doled out in increments over time.

“But you’re trying to find money wherever you can,” he said. “So, we’ve also done that and to date we’ve received $1 million in state historic tax credits. We just put in another application – our goal is at least a million and a half, and probably more in allocations. What the state is looking at is how far along are you in those allocations.”

Linfield said this is a challenging approach, because the developer is spending money in order to receive the tax credits, and there’s a carrying cost to everything it takes to make those applications, because plans have to be advanced.

“So now you’re getting into carrying costs and you’re trying to quickly gather money while the costs are still rising,” he said.

Linfield added that, regarding NewVue’s ask for a LIHTC award, they feel very good about the application. But, he continued, “Most times, you don’t get awarded in your first application. So, it’s a pre-app, then a full app; the full app, you aren’t normally awarded.”

Nonetheless, Linfield said NewVue and town officials are hopeful for a first-time approval due to the support given the project at the federal and local levels.

Asked when work on the project is likely to get underway, Linfield said, “Either way, it will be next year. It will either be right at the beginning of the year because we were awarded on the application I have in now. Or it would be mid-year because we made it into what’s called the ‘mini round.’”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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