By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City Councilor William Ryan is calling for Mayor James Fiorentini to form a committee of local people to work with UMass-Lowell to find the best location for the university’s proposed satellite campus downtown.
Ryan, a former Haverhill mayor, said the process that began about five weeks ago when university Chancellor Martin Meehan announced the school’s interest in opening a campus here, has been too secretive and lacks input from local people.
“We need this to be a more open process and to know what’s going on,” Ryan said at last night’s City Council meeting. “We don’t want this to be an inside game.”
On Monday, university spokeswoman Christine Gillette said two property owners submitted proposals to host the campus by last Friday’s deadline.
Gillette said a university committee is reviewing the proposals to determine if they meet the bidding criteria and then select the winner. Gillette said she could not identify the bidders or the properties and that she did not know when the college would make the proposals public.
Ryan said Haverhill should also have representation on the university’s review committee.
“This is public money and we should know what’s going on,” Ryan said. “The fact that there is so much silence and secrecy is going to upset a lot of people if we lose this.”
Information in the bidding documents show the university’s evaluation process ending Feb. 18 and the winner chosen Feb. 25. The building is expected to be ready for students in August.
Other councilors are more confident the university’s plan is on track.
“I expect the mayor and our legislators and Marty Meehan know what they are doing and have a plan,” Councilor Thomas Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he expects Fiorentini will reveal more details at the mayor’s State of the City speech next month.
“If this idea has come this far, it’s real and is going to happen,” Sullivan said.
The mayor did not return a phone message left for him after last night’s meeting.
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said she isn’t bothered by the dearth of information.
“I called Dempsey’s office and they told me it’s under control,” Daly O’Brien said. “But that they can’t say anything until the school picks the suitor and they have something concrete, as far as where and who. I don’t think it’s subterfuge. It’s just the difference between academia and government. It’s just not as public as we would like.”
State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, announced the UMass-Lowell plan with Meehan and is playing a leading role in the project.
In an interview earlier this week, Fiorentini indicated he is taking a hands-off approach to the college’s search for a property.
“I have instructed my department heads that this is a procurement process and that we are not to get involved in expressing a preference for one site over another,” the mayor said, stressing he’s confident the project will come to fruition. “We believe this will be a tremendous boon to our city and to our downtown.”
In late December, Meehan said the university is looking for 10,000 square feet of office space for six to eight “smart classrooms” and administrative offices for the satellite spot, which will focus on continuing education.
The initial bidding documents required the leased space to be downtown, within walking distance of Haverhill’s train and bus stations.
The map was changed, however, after a team from the university did a site walk of the area and felt that there were more potential locations beyond what was covered by the first map.
The original map showed the downtown area from Main Street to the train station, and bordered by Walnut Street/Bailey Boulevard to the north and the Merrimack River to the south.
The new, larger map has the same east-west coordinates and is still bordered by the Merrimack River to the south, but it nearly doubled in size by extending the boundary farther to the north, all the way to Route 97/Winter Street.