EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 8, 2013

Chester meets on future of former campus

By John Toole

---- — CHESTER — A community planning forum tomorrow afternoon will let residents envision the future development of the former Chester College of New England campus.

The Better Future Alliance of Concord, consulting with the town on the issue, will lead a three-hour forum to consider potential development of the 70-acre campus.

“They will be tasked with conducting a comprehensive opportunity assessment that will include identifying various options for the town,” Selectmen’s Chairman Stephen Landau said in announcing the forum this week.

Chester College closed last year amid financial uncertainty. Trustees have marketed the property for more than $2.65 million, but a buyer has yet to emerge.

The alliance’s Stuart Arnett, who served as state economic development director under three governors, said he hopes residents will come away from the planning forum feeling they were heard.

“On Saturday, we want to hear from the citizens, their concerns and what their vision will be,” Arnett said.

The alliance expects the community’s response will aid its work.

“We hope to take away reams of good ideas and information,” Arnett said.

Chester business owner Michelle Stein said she will try to attend.

Stein relocated her Bittersweet Blessings shop, specializing in antiques and primitive art, to the former Douglas Hall property she acquired after the college closed.

“It’s been wonderful,” Stein said. “We’re getting 10 times the traffic we did on Derry Road. So many people are in and out because we are so much more visible.”

Shoppers have included former Chester College students and faculty, she said.

Stein would like to see an educational institution or a senior assisted-living facility locate at the former campus.

She said the community is wonderful and people want to keep it that way.

“People want to be born, live and die in Chester,” she said.

The property is zoned for residential and educational uses. Arnett said zoning will be one of the topics at the forum.

“One thing that makes it special is not even on site,” Arnett said. “It is the location and real integration with the village. This is a very nice New England center.”

That’s an asset for a developer, he said.

“Someone would not have to create a village center because the village center is already there,” Arnett said.

The planning forum, open to the public, is scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. at Stevens Memorial Hall, 1 Chester St.

Among questions on the agenda are what people like about the campus and village, what are their concerns, what would they like to see the village become in five to 10 years.

Arnett said he expects there will be a follow-up meeting scheduled later with selectmen and possibly town residents.

One potential scenario evolving from the planning process is selectmen could put a warrant article before voters at Town Meeting in May concerning acquisition of the campus, although the board has made no decision to do so yet.