AUGUSTA — Proposed legislation would allow the state to sell property on part of its east-side campus in Augusta so a residential substance abuse treatment facility could be built there for veterans.

Proponents say such a plan could help spur redevelopment of the adjoining and long-vacant Kennebec Arsenal property on the riverfront. However, that prospect would rely on the would-be developer of the stalled redevelopment project, Tom Niemann, taking action and securing a partnership to do so.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, would expand a bill previously approved by legislators that allows the state to sell property on the edge of the east-side campus for potential redevelopment into transitional housing for veterans. Pouliot’s amendment would expand that legislation to allow the property to be sold instead to a nonprofit organization or a public-private partnership, which would use it to build a residential substance abuse treatment facility for veterans.

The state property currently has four vacant buildings on it, which previously served as group homes but have been empty and unused for several years. The state had planned to demolish the buildings, which are on the lower corner of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute parcel. The buildings have fallen into disrepair, and at least one of them has had mold growing in it. Pouliot said the buildings would have to be demolished by any group buying the property, and new buildings would need to be constructed on the site.

The legislation, approved Jan. 29 by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee with a unanimous “ought to pass” recommendation, is likely to go to the House of Representatives for a vote next week, Pouliot said.

It would expand a bill passed by a previous Legislature and pushed by Corey Wilson, a former state legislator and current Augusta city councilor, allowing the state to sell the property. That bill allowed the state to sell the property only to a nonprofit group for use as housing for homeless veterans.

Wilson said the original plan was for the state to sell the property to Bread of Life Ministries, which at the time had expressed interest in creating transitional housing for veterans. However, Wilson said after Dean LaChance, former director of Bread of Life, left the organization, the proposal to create housing for homeless veterans on the state-owned property fell apart.

Wilson said he was approached about a year ago by Niemann, a North Carolina developer who bought the Kennebec Arsenal from the state in 2007 with plans to redevelop the historic property’s granite buildings with new uses, including a boutique hotel and office space. But those plans haven’t materialized, and Niemann has faced repeated criticism from city and state officials for allowing the arsenal property to deteriorate and remain undeveloped.

According to Wilson, Niemann said he and a partner, the Parnell Group, were interested in building a 48-bed substance abuse treatment facility for veterans on the arsenal property, and in using the state-owned property next to it to create office and other space for the potential new facility. Wilson said Niemann told him the joint venture was in the early stages of raising money, and the longer-term plan also could include a new sober-living center on the arsenal property.

So Wilson asked Pouliot to propose legislation to amend the previous bill, to allow the state also to sell the property for use as a substance abuse treatment facility for veterans.

The amended legislation wouldn’t sell the property to Niemann’s proposed new group, or anyone; it only would authorize the state to sell the property to either a nonprofit organization or a public-private partnership that could use the property only for transitional housing for veterans or substance abuse treatment services, also only for veterans.

If the buyer fails to use the property for either of those two purposes, the property’s ownership would revert to the state.

“It would allow the sale of the property for those purposes, which I think would be in the public’s best interest,” said Wilson, who acknowledged some people might have concerns because of Niemann’s inability, so far, to develop the arsenal site. “Bottom line, if we have an opportunity to partner with a public-private partnership and find a way to bring substance abuse treatment, which is very much needed, not just in central Maine but across the country, I think regardless of who is at the table, we should take them seriously and consider it.”

Reached by phone Friday, Niemann said he would call back later, but he never did.

Pouliot said the legislation just makes the reuse of the property possible, and where the proposal goes from here is up to the state and other stakeholders.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

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