Harpswell Coastal Academy went up for auction on May 10, but several twists and turns have led to an uncertain outcome, with a group of benefactors still working to set aside the property for preservation. (Stefan Keenan photo)
Harpswell Heritage Land Trust has decided not to take ownership of the Harpswell Coastal Academy campus on Ash Point Road in Harpswell, despite pledged donations from a Portland philanthropist and several area residents that would have covered the acquisition costs.
Still, parties involved in the fundraising effort said other groups have expressed interest in acquiring the property for preservation, and that they are actively working toward an alternative solution. They opted not to disclose any additional details until an agreement could be reached, which they said could happen later this week.
In a news release issued Tuesday, the Land Trust cited several concerns about taking on the property and its aging school facility, but said it would “consider offering appropriate assistance” if the benefactor group chose to proceed with its own effort to purchase the nearly 8-acre site. The Land Trust’s Board of Trustees made the decision “with some regret” Saturday in an emergency meeting, it said.
“The board felt that there are too many unknowns regarding the property, and the school building that stands on it, and that this type of acquisition is not part of our main mission,” board President Wendy Batson said in the release.
An auction held Wednesday, May 10, to determine the new owner of the dissolving charter school’s campus ended in uncertainty, with the leading bidder offering to donate his bid to the Land Trust if it agreed to raise additional funds to meet the seller’s minimum price for the property. The auction was conducted in the academy’s gymnasium, with more than 30 bidders and onlookers in attendance.
The highest bidder was entrepreneur and philanthropist Arthur “Art” Girard, head 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 purposes. Girard said he was told the academy was looking for no less than $385,000 — known in auction lingo as the reserve price.
A group of neighboring residents led by Harpswell business owner Kara Douglas acted quickly to raise the remaining funds, garnering enough pledges in under 24 hours to close the funding gap, according to Douglas.
“While no funds have changed hands, people immediately came forth with pledges,” Douglas said via email on Friday, May 12.
The residents’ group had been hopeful that the Land Trust would agree to accept their donations and take ownership of the campus. But the trust said a decision deadline of Wednesday, May 17, set by Girard and auctioneer Keenan Auction Co. Inc., of Portland, did not afford it enough time to responsibly research the potential legal and financial risks posed by accepting the property.
Batson said environmental reports collected from a variety of sources raised questions about the condition of the property that could not be answered prior to the deadline.
“We regret that we did not have more time to work with the town and community members to find a way forward,” she said in the release, adding that the costs of mothballing or maintaining the property’s nearly 17,000-square-foot school building would have been “considerable.”
The Land Trust said it had received no advance notice that Girard, a longtime donor to Maine organizations including the University of New England, had planned to donate his bid on the campus to the nonprofit organization. An appraisal conducted in 2022 valued the academy site at just over $1 million, with a replacement cost of $1.7 million.
But all is not lost, according to Girard and Harpswell Coastal Academy Board of Directors Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine. Both said Tuesday that other groups have come forward to offer help with securing the property for preservation. Neither would provide additional details, saying it would be premature until a solid agreement is in place.
“We’re negotiating right now on different things … but it’s up in the air right now,” Girard said in a phone interview. “We’re all trying to make this work.”
Shelmerdine echoed Girard’s sentiments and expressed optimism that a deal could be reached even without the Land Trust’s direct involvement.
“There are several things in play right now,” she said. “A couple of other entities have expressed interest. The head of the auction company is talking with Mr. Girard, with the Land Trust and with these other folks.”
A group of more than 100 Harpswell residents, led by Douglas, delivered a letter on May 5, to the Town Office, the academy and its Board of Directors, and Keenan Auction Co. 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.
Douglas, whose letter advocated setting aside the academy’s campus for community use, said she never imagined that Harpswell residents would be teaming up with the academy, an auctioneer and a local philanthropist to try to preserve the site.
“No one expected any of this,” she said. “It’s a dream come true, but with a lot of strings attached.”