Selectmen take back the Simes House

The Simes House

The Simes House

The fate of the Simes House is now in the hands of the town and town meeting.

In a 3-1 vote, the Board of Selectmen voted to take the historic home back from the foundation which had worked to restore it. The Community Preservation Committee will come before fall town meeting to ask for $1.1 million to finish the project, according to Chairman Bill Keohan. The foundation, he said, still has $700,000 in its account, which would be used to install a fire suppression system, he said.

Foundation president James Pierson described the struggle the group has faced trying to restore the interior of the house.  When plans were developed for the interior, it became apparent they didn’t have the money to complete the job, he said. Trying to do it in phases, he added, proved unfeasible. There was also what he called a difference of opinion among board members on how to proceed, particularly regarding a proposed kitchen.

The dispute over the kitchen had held the project up for about a year, Keohan said in an earlier interview. Members of the board differed over whether to install a caterer’s kitchen or a commercial kitchen, he said. A commercial kitchen, he said, would include an extra sink, a mop closet and a fire suppression system for the stove. The foundation decided on a commercial kitchen.

After “a couple of influential members of the board” concluded the foundation couldn’t finish the job, the CPC stopped authorizing spending on the project, Pierson said. In March, the Simes House Foundation membership voted to return the house to the town. “The board doesn’t agree with decision of members, but has a responsibility to follow membership’s decision,” he said.

In 2011, town meeting voted to spend $1.5 million of CPA money on the project, with a promise the Simes House Foundation would raise an additional $2 million to finish the job. Since then, Pierson said, getting grants has proven difficult. the project’s multi-use plan has made it, he said, hard to categorize it to potential donors.

The plan for the Simes House puts space for public use on the first floor, offices on the second floor and affordable housing on the third floor. According to Pierson, that has made it hard to convince either affordable housing groups or historic preservation groups to offer grant money.

In a bit of good news, the Massachusetts Historical Society has offered to fund an application to put the Simes House on the National Historical Registry. That designation could help loosen the wallets of some grantmakers, Pierson said.  The CPC, Keohan said, is looking to hire a grant writer to work on both the Simes House and the 1820 Courthouse.

While he praised the foundation for the work it has done, Keohan said the CPC has been naive to give the Simes House Foundation the responsibility of restoring the building. He said the Plymouth Antiquarian Society would be asked to help with that task. A private group, possible the Simes House Foundation, would then take over management once that job was finished.

Selectmen Anthony Provenzano and Dave Malaguti both expressed their doubts about taking the house back. Malaguti voiced opposition to the town acquiring more buildings. “We can’t maintain what we have,” he said.  “It’s not our intention to have the town manage the building,” Keohan said. Provenzano said the struggles of the foundation were “a corporate governance issue” and that groups like it suffered from growing pains.

However, the time needed to overcome those growing pains may not be there. According to Keohan, because the house is not occupied, the foundation would start having to pay property taxes on July 1. The house is currently valued at $407,500, according to town records. The foundation can’t afford to pay taxes on it, board member Randy Parker said.

In the end, only Provenzano voted against taking back the house, fearing it would become a liability to the town. “The board should get its act together.” Malaguti, reluctantly, decided to vote in favor. “I don’t see any way out,” he said.

Selectmen Chairman Ken Tavares praised those involved in the project for their “great effort… to get this up and running. The task was was probably beyond what should have been accepted of them.”

In the end, the board voted 3-1 to take the house back. Selectmen Sean Page was absent.

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