EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 4, 2013

Chester to debate former college campus future

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — CHESTER — Selectmen are holding a forum tomorrow afternoon to hear from the community about the future of the former Chester College campus.

Selectmen’s Chairman Stephen Landau requested the meeting after receiving phone calls from residents, according to minutes from a meeting Nov. 15.

“It was suggested that a workshop be held early in 2013, perhaps on a Saturday, to which all residents, Trustees of the College, and its marketing company could be invited,” the minutes read.

The session is scheduled for 3 p.m. in the multipurpose room at the town offices, 84 Chester St.

“There will be an informal open discussion for recommendations as to how people would like to see the Town of Chester proceed with the area formerly known as the Chester College of New England,” a public notice of the meeting said.

Though the meeting is non-binding, the forum could provide selectmen with some direction.

The town doesn’t own the campus. It is still held by the now-closed college under control of the trustees.

What happens on the property is up to any future owner, though town zoning rules would regulate development, town planning coordinator Cynthia Robinson said.

The college shut for financial reasons last spring. Trustees have marketed the property, which includes more than 70 acres, for more than $2.65 million.

The Douglas Hall property was sold. Michelle Stein is relocating her Bittersweet Blessings shop, specializing in antiques and primitive art, from Derry Road to Douglas Hall.

“We’re opening Feb. 2,” Stein said. “We have our variance.”

Planning Board approval was granted this week. Renovations for the shop are coming along.

“Really wonderful. Everything is going through smoothly,” Stein said. “We have a moving sale going on at our current shop.”

Stein plans to attend the forum.

“I think the easiest thing that would go through, because of the zoning, is some sort of educational facility,” she said.

Robert Baines, who served as college president, told Stein three educational institutions have expressed interest in the property, she said.

Chris Norwood, marketing the campus on behalf of Bedford-based NAI Norwood Group, said talks continue with various institutions.

“There is nothing to announce,” he said. “There are still probably three or four prospects that have the ability to pull this together.”

Norwood expects the buyer ultimately will be an educational or institutional organization, maybe even a religious organization, that could work with existing zoning and infrastructure.

“It is not going to go to a Walmart,” he said. “It is not going to go to a distribution center.”

Stein said some residents have a different idea.

“A lot of people would like to see smaller shops, like a coffee shop, but no chains,” she said. “Something that would make Chester a local destination.”

Norwood sees that as a possibility, too.

“I think low-impact, small businesses would be beneficial to both sides,” he said.

A representative of Granite House, a Derry-based sober house, last fall backed out of an informal discussion with the Planning Board.

That happened as residents raised concerns with town officials in November about such a program.

Owner Eric Spofford would not acknowledge any plans for the Chester property, though he said the sober program has an interest in expansion.

Residents unable to attend the forum can email selectmen at chesterbos@gsinet.net.