AUGUSTA — High hopes six years ago for planned redevelopment at the historic Kennebec Arsenal property apparently have been dashed for now, and the state is asking for ownership back.
The state attorney general’s office filed a court complaint Wednesday against would-be arsenal developer Tom Niemann, saying he has failed to make promised improvements since buying the property in March 2007.
The complaint was filed in Kennebec County Superior Court against Main Street I, LLC and Niemann Capital, LLC, of Durham, N.C., the arsenal property’s current owners. The lawsuit offers a history lesson on the importance of the property along with the track of ownership.
“After five years of ownership there have been no substantial improvements to the historic property as proposed by Mr. Niemann when he purchased the property,” Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said in a statement issued by the commission and the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services. “Instead, the public has witnessed significant deterioration to the property due to lack of even routine maintenance and repair.”
Such neglect has resulted in more than $1 million worth of damage to the campus, Shettleworth said.
Niemann did not respond to a phone message seeking comment Wednesday, but his attorney, Eric Wycoff, said via email that Niemann’s company would file a court response to the complaint.
“There are many allegations contained in the complaint that we disagree with,” Wycoff wrote. “Main Street and Niemann Capital hope to work through these issues with the state and to make progress at the site, which would be beneficial for all parties.”
The state’s actions in filing the lawsuit brought praise from the city’s top administrator.
“At this juncture the city welcomes the state’s actions,” Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said Wednesday. “I believe that the state and the city have been more than patient with the developer. It’s actually been very hard to witness in the last several years the ongoing neglect and deterioration of the property.”
The arsenal is a complex of eight historic granite buildings on 41 acres on the east bank of the Kennebec River in Augusta. It’s believed “to be the best surviving example in the United States of an early 19th century munitions depot,” according to the complaint, and was built between 1828 and 1838 to hold military supplies for a feared invasion by Great Britain that never came. The arsenal, however, was key to providing munitions during the Mexican War and the Civil War, and it remained staffed until 1901.
The property later became part of the state’s mental hospital, the former Augusta Mental Health Institute. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
City records show two parcels totaling 17.4 acres and containing eight buildings were sold to Main Street I/Niemann Capital in 2007. The sales price was $750,000, with Tom Niemann paying $280,000 upfront and the remainder coming due after development started.
The lawsuit asks the court to rescind that contract, return the title of the property to the state and force Niemann to post a performance bond of $1 million to ensure he will work on the arsenal to meet the obligations in the historic-preservation covenants.
City records show that almost $80,000 in taxes is due on the property.
During Niemann’s six years of ownership, he has violated legal covenants to preserve the historic property by allowing vandalism, theft, water damage and deterioration of the buildings, according to the complaint.
Such decay stands in stark contrast to the redevelopment hopes for property, where signs still proclaim: “National historic landmark offers vibrant riverfront campus for boutique hotel, condos, restaurant and office space.”
The greening grass on the lawns is short and few fallen leaves remain. Moss covers many blocks of a granite wharf that juts from the 1,130 feet of riverfront.
The buildings show the most deterioration. Weather-stained granite blocks are in different shades of gray, paint peels from wooden columns, and brown stains trail from metal fire escape braces.
Boards cover some of the broken windows, small “No Trespassing” signs are on various doors, and fire hydrants are marked “out of service.” The porch light of one building and interior ceiling lights of the “Old Max” were lit Wednesday afternoon.
People frequently drive through that part of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus, and the Augusta Greenway meanders through it as well, paralleling the Kennebec River Rail Trail, which runs along the opposite bank.
State officials threatened to sue Niemann last fall to force him to take steps to protect the property from further damage. Niemann said in October that he was at the arsenal, working with a contractor on the gatehouse building at the lower entrance to the complex, which is between the Kennebec River and former AMHI campus off Hospital Street.
Niemann said he was about to sign with a firm that would seek commercial tenants, and said he was also looking at developing some of the property into housing for senior citizens.
Under Niemann’s plan, work was to start with the gatehouse, then move to the barracks building, the riverside South Burleigh and North Burleigh buildings, and the Old Max building away from the river. The project was to be competed within three years.
Meantime, he said he would focus on getting the buildings weatherized and conduct some interior renovations during the winter.
“We provided Mr. Niemann multiple opportunities over the last year to negotiate an agreement with the state in respect to the breach of the historical covenants,” Commissioner Sawin Millett of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services said in a statement. “However, Mr. Niemann has been unable to provide a comprehensive plan to address the ongoing maintenance of the property and the reconstruction of the arsenal back to the condition it was in on the date of purchase.
“Furthermore, he has been unable to provide the state with a performance bond to guarantee his financial ability to meet any of his obligations with the state in respect to the historical covenants.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631