A top official at Harpswell Coastal Academy said a local resident has come forward to purchase the dissolving charter school’s campus on Ash Point Road in Harpswell after a recent auction to sell the property ended in uncertainty. The new buyer’s identity had not been made public as of Friday, May 19.
“I’m glad to report that the school is now under contract for the property,” HCA Board of Directors Chair Cynthia Shelmerdine said Thursday, May 18, via email. “The buyer is a local person. Because this is now a private deal, and no longer a public auction, I am legally not allowed to say anything more than that.”
Auctioneer Stefan “Stef” Keenan, of Portland-based Keenan Auction Co. Inc., confirmed that a private individual who had been unaware of the May 10 auction has since agreed to purchase the site for an undisclosed sum.
“I hope everything works out for the community, the buyer and the school. I have a really good, strong sense that it will,” Keenan said Thursday, May 18, in a phone interview. “You’re going to know a whole lot more soon, I’ll put it to you that way. I wish I could tell you more — we’re just operating under a different set of rules now.”
The nearly 8-acre property features a baseball diamond and parking for more than 20 vehicles, as well as about 4.5 acres of woods. The school building has seven classrooms, seven offices and seven bathrooms, as well as a gymnasium, kitchen, cafeteria and library.
Unless the new buyer volunteers to come forward, the first opportunity to glean their identity and the purchase price would be when the deed of sale is recorded after the deal closes in mid- to late June.
An online auction to sell the academy’s outbuildings, vehicles and equipment will continue as planned. That auction will run from 9 a.m. June 25 through 1 p.m. July 10, with a preview from 10 a.m. to noon on June 29. There will be no minimum bids.
Buyers must pick up their items between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on July 11. The campus’s mystery buyer will be allowed to take possession of the property on July 12.
Harpswell Heritage Land Trust chose not to take ownership of the HCA campus despite pledged donations from a Portland philanthropist and several area residents that would have covered the acquisition costs. It cited legal and cost uncertainties related to maintaining the 17,000-square-foot school facility, built in 1964 with a 1989 addition.
The philanthropist, Arthur “Art” Girard, of family-owned Delta Realty LLC, had attended the auction, offered the highest bid, and signed an agreement to pay $330,000 for the property and auction fees, along with a commitment to donate the funds for land preservation.
The Land Trust has said it 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.
A group of Harpswell residents led by business owner Kara Douglas had rallied to raise an additional $55,000 to meet the academy’s minimum sale price of $385,000.
Douglas reacted with mixed feelings to the news that the group’s land preservation deal was off the table and a new buyer had come forward.
“While I’m deeply disappointed that we weren’t able to put this land and the aquifer it supports directly into conservation, I also feel optimistic that whoever the buyer is will be willing to work with the community to steward this land well,” Douglas said via email. “Whether that means developing it as sustainably as possible or creating green space is yet to be seen.”
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.
Girard, the philanthropist, said he was surprised to learn that the Land Trust had decided not to accept his donation, but that the new buyer apparently had expressed a deep interest in acquiring the site. Girard said Keenan called to tell him about the new buyer on Thursday, May 18, but didn’t specify who it was.
“He was telling me … that, all of a sudden, there was a guy that really wanted it that missed the auction that they thought to call, and he said, ‘I’ll take it,'” Girard said in a phone interview. “He couldn’t wait to buy it, I guess.”
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 said in a phone interview Thursday, May 18, that there had been a lot of community enthusiasm for seeing the land put into conservation and the school building used in a way that would have a positive impact on the community.
“I know that that enthusiasm is still present,” she said. “People would really like to see some good things happen.”