An auction to determine the new owner of Harpswell Coastal Academy’s campus ended in a cliffhanger, with the leading bidder offering to donate his bid to the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust if it agrees to raise additional funds to meet the seller’s minimum price for the property.
The campus went up for auction on Wednesday, May 10, in the academy’s gymnasium, with more than 30 bidders and onlookers in attendance.
The highest bidder was philanthropist Arthur “Art” Girard, “directeur general” of family-owned Delta Realty LLC, of Portland, who said he would offer $310,000 for the property, along with a commitment to donate the funds for land preservation. Girard said he was told the academy was looking for no less than $385,000 – known in auction lingo as the reserve price.
“I told them if they take $310,000, I would donate it to the Land Trust,” Girard said in an interview. “If they (the trust) raise the difference in money, then … they own it. They could use it for anything they want.”
Attendees were hopeful that the remaining funds could be contributed by the Land Trust. It has a board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 16, but its executive director, Julia McLeod, said in a phone interview after the auction that it likely wouldn’t wait that long to make a decision.
“I cannot speak for my board, of course, but I have reached out to the Executive Committee … to talk with them about how we would like to proceed to consider the opportunity,” she said. “I could have more information tomorrow or later this week, but I really can’t speak for the board on whether they would or would not consider accepting the property.”
McLeod said the nearly 8-acre property would be an unusual acquisition for the Land Trust because of the roughly 17,000-square-foot school facility located on the site. An appraisal conducted in 2022 valued the entire campus at just over $1 million, with a replacement cost of $1.7 million.
“It’s not typically our area of work to own a building like that, and so that would be a liability in our mind,” McLeod said. “But there are options, I suppose, and so we would consider it.”
She added that the Land Trust received no advance notice that Girard planned to donate his bid to the nonprofit organization. It wouldn’t be the first time Girard and his family have donated large sums to Maine institutions — they have been major donors to the University of New England, among others.
Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of Harpswell Coastal Academy’s board of directors, said she was hopeful that a deal could be worked out with the Land Trust to preserve the campus for community use.
“I think this would be a great outcome for the property,” Shelmerdine said in an interview after the auction, “but it’s contingent upon their accepting it as a donation.”
Kara Douglas, a local business owner who has been involved in efforts to encourage a favorable outcome for the land, said the trust would need to accept financial responsibility for maintaining the school building, which isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“I’m hopeful that this will work,” said Douglas, owner and operator of Fishmoon Yoga. “It might be tricky because of the building, but we’ll see what we can do.”
A group of more than 100 Harpswell residents, led by Douglas, delivered a letter on Friday, May 5, to the Town Office, the academy and its board of directors, as well as auctioneer Keenan Auction Company Inc., of Portland. The letter focused primarily on concerns about future groundwater usage at the site, and whether it would stress the area’s limited aquifer if the property was acquired for commercial use.
Harpswell Coastal Academy, a public charter school for grades five through 12, is set to close at the end of the school year after a decade in operation. The Maine Charter School Commission did not renew its charter, citing a variety of concerns.
The town of Harpswell sold the campus to the nonprofit Harpswell Coastal Academy Inc. for $150,000 in 2015. In recent months, the academy offered to sell the property back to the town.
Town officials balked at the potential sale price of $800,000, although Shelmerdine said that figure was merely a price cap based on preliminary estimates. Academy officials have said the sale price would need to cover the school’s financial obligations, including debts and repayment of federal grants.
The Harpswell Select Board in March put the matter to voters, who overwhelmingly rejected the purchase.
Land Trust member Elizabeth Davis, who attended Wednesday’s auction, said she was encouraged by its tentative outcome, but she echoed McLeod’s concerns about taking on the responsibility of maintaining the 59-year-old school facility. Davis speculated that the town of Harpswell could be part of the solution.
“I don’t think the issue is the money,” she said. “I think the issue is finding the right entity to take ownership (of the building).”
Auctioneer Stefan “Stef” Keenan said it isn’t every day that a bidder at one of his auctions offers to donate their bid to a nonprofit, but he said such a thing is not unprecedented.
“Is that uncommon here in Harpswell? No,” Keenan said. “In Portland? Yes.”