By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Three weeks after the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School’s early and unexpected closure, the landlord of the former school building in Blackburn Industrial Park estimates he is out more than $1 million in rent as he begins the search for a new tenant.
Mick Lafata, who owns and manages several properties, including the charter school site at 2 Blackburn Drive, said Tuesday he places no blame on charter school officials, though he wishes the state could step in to help pay the five year lease signed by charter board trustees. The state is not responsible for paying the remaining 30 months of the lease at the cost of $35,000 per month, he said.
”There’s nothing I can do,” Lafata said. “I have to chalk this up as a company came in, they signed the lease, they went belly up, and I’m stuck with the lease.”
Charter students, parents and officials were shocked when the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education revoked the school’s charter 2 1/2 years short of the typically granted five year start-up terms, but Lafata also took a hit behind the scenes. The landlord said he had trusted that the school, whose concept he fully supported, would flourish. He said he had been sure that the school would remain open during at least the five-year start-up period covered by the charter and the lease.
”I knew it would be a risk going into the second (five-year lease term), but I never in my wildest dreams thought they’d drop the ball in the first five years,” Lafata said.
Charter school Board of Trustees Chairman James Caviston, who has frequently expressed thanks for Lafata’s leniency and sacrifices, said he “feels very badly” that the state’s decision to revoke the charter also affected Lafata and caught him off guard.
“He’s been terrific to work with. He’s made a lot of things possible and was willing to make all the concessions,” Caviston said. “Whoever moves into that building is going to have the greatest landlord.”
Charter school officials will meet tonight to discuss certain closing procedures, including liquidation, liabilities and federal grant payments. Caviston said that although the school is low on funds and has many to pay, sending some compensation Lafata’s way will be a priority if any finances free up.
”We’d like to do as much as we could for Mick because he’s done so much for us,” Caviston said, “but the fact of the matter is we have extremely limited resources at this point.”
Lafata said he must accept the circumstances and move forward, which is why he erected a “for sale or lease” sign in front of the building and launched a website featuring photos and layouts of the building about two weeks ago. Lafata said Tuesday he is not yet specifying any asking price.
Lafata said he began receiving calls from prospective buyers and lessees after setting up the sign and his 2blackburndrive.com web site, but has encountered one issue. The building, formerly a medical office complex —the Cape Ann Medical Center— underwent a $6 million renovation to “custom tailor” it as a school building, with all-new everything from pipes to partitions to paint.
“I’ve got this beautiful building that doesn’t need any work at all. It would be dynamite for a school to move in there. It’s all set, ready to go,” Lafata said. “I still think it’s the best site in Blackburn.”
Many people approaching Lafata about the building have been interested in buying or leasing only a part of the structure, rather than the entire building. And while Lafata is hearing those offers, he said he’ll also soon begin reaching out to private schools to gauge interest.
Some residents have peddled the idea of Gloucester moving a city school into the building, but city officials have expressed no immediate need for the building.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.