Peirce Building fate draws strong emotions, no consensus

Nov 21, 2022

MIDDLEBORO — On his first day on the job, Town Manager James McGrail offered to bring a “fresh set of eyes’’ to potential plans for a community center and office space at the Peirce Building in downtown Middleboro.

He made the proposal during a lengthy and at times heated discussion during the Nov. 21 select board meeting about the fate of the building, which remained undetermined by the meeting’s end.

The building, which is located on 99 North Main St., dates back to 1808 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structure has been vacant since the police department moved out in 2018 to relocate into its current site on Wood Street.

In conjunction with the Peirce Building Reuse Committee, which was formed to develop a concept for the building’s future, Jones Payne Architects and Planners developed a plan that would convert the building into a community center and public and private office space. 

The project would have an estimated price tag of about $5 million, much of which could be covered by free cash and grants, select board member and Peirce Building Reuse Committee chair Nathan Demers has said.

Select board member Neil Rosenthal said he heard support for the project from the community, except for “about a half dozen people’’ who oppose the proposal.

Select board member Brian Giovanoni countered that he hears from blue-collar residents who are concerned about the cost. In tough economic times, he said, “people worry about their pocketbooks.’’ 

“I won’t repeat what people think that building should be,’’ he said of conversations he has had with people who oppose the proposal.

Rosenthal accused Giovanni of being a “demagogue’’ on the issue and said that the project would be funded within the confines of the budget and would not increase taxes. “Unless you go for an override, it doesn’t cost an additional dime,’’ he said. 

“If you spend taxpayer money, it comes out of taxpayer pockets,’’ Giovanoni countered.

Town resident Paula Fay questioned why there had been “no attempt to look at private interests’’ rather than having the building owned by the town. She suggested sending a request for a Request for Expressions of Interest, or REOI, to determine what private entities might be interested.

Demers questioned how this could happen if a potential reuse has not been agreed upon through a select board vote. 

Middleboro Historical Commission chair Michael Maddigan said his commission supported the proposal, saying the building could serve the town “socially and culturally in the future.’’

“Historic preservation has a cost but there is a return on investment’’ that extends beyond the financial, he said. “We can work together as a community to look for funding sources,’’ he said. 

Historical Commission Larissa Hallgren questioned why the proposal has drawn such  “micro-negative criticism.’’ She said that “there are costs to be borne, but the return is so abundant.’’ 

Giovannoni at one point proposed disbanding the reuse committee because, he said, its work was done. He withdrew that motion when McGrail offered to attend a meeting and develop his own recommendation.

Select board chair Mark Germain said he was “disappointed’’ that the “meeting wasn’t productive. We’re back to square one. I personally want to hear from Town Meeting’’ on the issue, he said.