NEWBURYPORT — Supporters of Newburyport Youth Services are still hoping they can find a new home after the proposed purchase of 57 Low St. failed to win the City Council's approval Thursday night.
Mayor Donna Holaday had proposed buying the National Guard garage and surrounding land using $220,000 from the city's free cash account.
The property had been looked at as a potential home for the Parks and School Departments or Newburyport Youth Services. But the council voted, 6-5, not to purchase the property during a special meeting Thursday night.
Ward 5 Councilor James McCauley is one of the six councilors who voted against the purchase. McCauley said he and his fellow councilors have been wrestling with the decision for a long time.
"They were projecting a noble use there," McCauley said. "But that wasn't in the bill. The bill was up or down."
According to McCauley, although most of the City Council liked the purchase initially, the deal did not hold up under scrutiny.
"It sounded good, then we dug deeper into it and we found that there was a lot of risk, potentially," McCauley said. "There were unknowns, there were inconsistencies and those are all flags. It doesn't matter the dollar amount, there is risk and we chose to do the due diligence over and above what we were told."
Newburyport Youth Services has been operating out of the former Brown School on Milk Street since 2014. At-large Councilor Afroz Khan voted for the purchase Thursday night and said she would like to see a selection committee put together to find a new home for NYS soon.
"It was almost like we were being told that 'this is the site for Youth Services' without that really being public and exploring all of the potential locations and why this would make the most sense," Khan said. "Some of us came to that conclusion based on the equity aspect. But, at the end of the day, I think it was really clear that a more transparent, a more community-level collaborative type of effort is needed."
Ashley Shwom-Santa Fe is the president of the Friends of Newburyport Youth Services and said she was disappointed by the City Council's vote but was glad to hear that a majority of the board supported creating a site selection committee to find a home for NYS.
"You can see that the councilors are showing support that NYS should not be at the Brown School," Shwom-Santa Fe said. "The reason why it shouldn't be at the Brown School is that they can't continue to do their programming and expand as the city needs it. The building is also in such disarray that it is not a healthy building for children to be in."
Shwom-Santa Fe said an environmental study found hazardous materials and asbestos in the former Brown School.
"We have worked the last three years trying to find NYS a permanent home," she said. "We do not have another three years to wait, based on the findings at the Brown School. It is more immediate now than ever to get NYS into a permanent home."
McCauley said that he is unsure whether the hazardous material at the Brown School is as big of an issue as others may think.
"I believe there is asbestos in the adhesive for the tile but there is no cracks in the tile," McCauley said. "Some would say that is OK for now. When you go to replace it, you have to remediate it. Also, the 2014, the 2017 and the recent study said that the current boiler situation may have exposed asbestos pipe wrap. But I don't know what other extent there is. I'm not saying it is a clean building but, on the other hand, it is not as dirty as some of the public comment made it out to be."
According to McCauley, NYS might be better off regrouping and taking another shot at finding a new home.
"They have needs and they need to articulate those needs and look for sponsorship, not just with the mayor," McCauley said. "The mayor is leaving in 300 or so days. She has had a lot of success in her time but, on the other hand, 300 days is not a long runway to finish this."
Khan said she believes the community can still find a solution to the problem.
"It is very clear that all of the councilors want to see the best for Newburyport Youth Services," Khan said. "That was an instrumental aspect of the conversation and we shouldn't ignore that."
Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.