The needler in the haystack.

Monday, February 15, 2016

State reneges on deal with city over National Starch property?


Satellite view of 1700 West Front Street,housing PAAAS and
Jefferson Schools, sold by state to the District for $1.
CORRECTION: The ill-fated agency which began the "swing school" concept was the Schools Construction Corporation, which folded in something of a scandal  over its finances. It was replaced by the Schools Development Authority.

The deal disclosed in the Courier to sell the former National Starch property on West Front Street to the school district for $1 after spending $25 million on its acquisition and remodeling (see story here) got me to thinking about the history involved.

Back in the halcyon days when Dr. Larry Leverett was Plainfield's superintendent of schools, the district and the state embarked on an ambitious program of expanding and upgrading existing school buildings, including making them ADA-compliant.

The resulting disruption meant that alternative space needed to be found to move students into while work was being done on their building. Hence, the "swing school" concept.

At the time the ill-fated Schools Development Authority (SDA) was bankrolling these efforts throughout the state. In Plainfield, a search was conducted for an appropriate site for a "swing school".

At the time, I was the city's public information officer and remember having several conversations with the late Al McWilliams, who was mayor at the time.

One property that was considered as a potential site was the former Wardlaw-Hartridge School (now Koinonia Academy) on Plainfield Avenue. It had the advantage of existing buildings already certified for school use, as well as a spacious campus.

The site had been on the market since the new Wardlaw-Hartridge campus was developed in Edison and the lower-school was moved there. Although the asking price was "squishy", it seemed the trustees would consider offers in the range of $1.5 to $1 million.

As the site was being looked into, it was purchased by the Koinonia folks, who were a breakaway from a New Providence church.

The alternative was the National Starch headquarters on West Front Street, This complex, Plainfield's only "Class A" office space had been occupied by the local Social Security office after Unilever consolidated its operations and moved National Starch personnel to offices elsewhere.

After Social Security was moved to Somerville, the office building sat empty for some time. There was, however, another entity -- Townley Labs -- in the former R&D section of the complex (the one-story portion bounding Rock Avenue).

Altogether, the property brought in $400,000 annually in property taxes -- not an insignificant sum for Plainfield.

Mayor McWilliams was very reluctant to let this kind of ratable be lost to the city forever, and told me he had extracted an agreement from the SDA to return the property to the tax rolls once all the schools to be upgraded or expanded were completed.

I believed at the time that he had gotten a document -- either a letter or a more formal Memorandum of Understanding -- affirming that agreement.

To date, city officials have not been able to find it, but I am told a search is going on.

Did the state welch on its deal with the city? It will be interesting to find out.


  -- Dan Damon [follow]


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