BERLIN – When the mayor and council last week decided to purchase the Dennison’s Trackside Hobby building downtown for the use of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce it was the culmination of months’ work of planning and negotiation.
The chamber had been fast outgrowing its offices and was looking for a larger space that would both allow them to be more effective and better highlight the town’s tourism profile.
The initial plan was to purchase a building on the north end of town using a combination of a $125,000 Community Legacy grant and a $150,000 Humphreys Foundation grant. The deal fell through, though and the clock began to tick on the state grant.
“We started looking for ways to spend the grant,” said Tanja Giles, Berlin Chamber of Commerce president. “[We chose the Dennison building] because we wanted to help revitalize that section of town.”
Working with the town, the chamber was able to negotiate an acceptable purchase price – $357,500 plus up to $50,000 for renovations – but the chamber didn’t purchase the building. The deal is structured in such a way that Berlin will own the building, supplying the additional cash and holding the mortgage, and the chamber will pay the building off with the aim of renting it in perpetuity.
“We’re very thankful to the town for allowing us to participate,” Giles said.
When explaining the plan to the council Director of Economic and Community Development Michael Day said part of the chamber’s plan is to convert the former storage space into a gallery. Local artists will have the opportunity to rent space to sell their own work, and reap the benefits of the Arts and Entertainment District tax credits.
“The income from that will perpetuate [the chamber’s] activities and their program,” Day said. “I think it’s just a great project for downtown Berlin.”
Giles told the council at last week’s special meeting that the chamber has spent the better part of the last year getting their financial house in order in preparation for the purchase.
“We’re excited about the project,” she said. “We worked aggressively with our budget…to meet the financial obligations.”
Under the current plan the town will hold a 20 year mortgage on the building and afterward would rent it to the chamber for $1 per year but as the lease still has to be drafted. The chamber also evinced an expectation of paying the note off early.
“We’re launching a capital campaign to try and raise additional funds,” Giles said. “And we already have artist interest [in the gallery space].
Day said there was a lot of potential for additional revenue generating opportunities including retail. In addition to selling Berlin souvenirs, the chamber would be able to continually sell event merchandise after the fact rather than storing or disposing of it.
But chief among the aspects of the deal that excited both chamber members and the town administration was the opportunity for increased tourism traffic on the south side of town. As it stands now, tour busses park in the municipal lot on the north side of town and few tourists make it past the Atlantic Hotel.
With the purchase of the building, the busses will be directed to drop their passengers off at the new visitors center and pick them up at the municipal lot, so every downtown business gets the same opportunity for exposure.
The council approved the purchase over the objection of Councilwoman Paula Lynch and with Councilman Troy Purnell recusing himself.