NEW CUMBERLAND - The auction of Newell Memorial Stadium is back on track now that the Hancock County school board has agreed to sell the property to the highest bidder.
The board voted 3-2 on Monday to accept Superintendent Suzan Smith's recommendation to sell the football field at auction at 10 a.m. Oct. 25. The board set the minimum bid at $250,000.
The vote came about a month after the board's 3-2 rejection on Sept. 10 of Smith's original proposal for the stadium sale. Board members who changed their vote - Jerry Durante and Toni Hinerman - said their conditions for the sale had been met to their satisfaction.
The only board member to change her vote from a "yes" to a "no," Laura Greathouse, said she did so because she felt the district should have accepted an offer from the City of Chester to buy the stadium for $250,000.
"If we can keep it in the community and still have the money that we need, then that's enough for me," Greathouse said. "I will not vote for an auction when (the community) might not get it."
Last week, Chester City Council authorized Mayor Ken Morris to make an offer to the school board at Monday's meeting. Morris was unable to attend the meeting because of a work commitment that required him to be out of state.
But Smith read a letter dated Oct. 5 that claimed to be a formal offer from the City of Chester to buy the stadium. The offer involved the city acting as a "middle man" between an anonymous private donor and the school district, Morris said last week. The Chester Volunteer Fire Department would then reimburse the donor and take possession of the property, keeping it in community hands, Morris said.
The school board took no action on the Chester offer Monday night, instead opting for the auction under rules slightly revised from Smith's previous proposal. The vote was: Durante, Hinerman and Patsy Brancazio for the auction; Greathouse and John Manypenny against the auction.
Durante, board president, said the board couldn't consider Chester's offer because it wasn't on the agenda.
"I didn't think it was timely," he said. "I can't just turn around and let that property go on this kind of (short) notice."
Durante voted against Smith's previous proposal because he, like Manypenny, felt its insistence on a lump-sum payment unnecessarily limited the field of prospective buyers.
In the meantime, the board checked with its legal counsel, Richard Boothby of the Bowles Rice law firm, and learned that it cannot accept payments for the stadium, Durante said.
"It has to be one lump sum," he said.
Durante said he also was not convinced that the Chester offer was completely legal.
"There are two things I worry about: I'm hyper over making sure we're legal ... and what is best for the Hancock County school system, aside from any public pressure."
Among those applying pressure on the board to accept Chester's offer Monday night were members of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition. For the third time in as many months, coalition Treasurer Sue Thompson told the board it should not opt for an auction of the stadium.
"We're fearful as to what's going to happen" if the stadium ends up in private hands, Thompson said.
But Hinerman said there's nothing preventing Morris, the Chester mayor, from bidding on the 4.25-acre property at the Oct. 25 auction.
The auction rules state:
The auction will take place in the school board room, 104 N. Court St., New Cumberland (in the basement of the New Cumberland City Building);
The property will go to the highest responsible bidder;
15 percent of the winning bid, by cash or personal check, is due on the day of the auction;
The board will meet in special session on Oct. 29 to either approve or reject the winning bid;
The balance must be paid, by cash or cashier's check, at the closing, which is 20 calendar days after the board approves the bid.
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