The former Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta languishes in a state of disrepair 14 years after a developer bought the historic property with plans to redevelop it. Now, residents and city officials want to urge the owner to take steps to develop the property and its eight structures. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)

AUGUSTA — After 14 years of inaction, city officials plan to try to prompt action from the developer who has done nothing with the historic Kennebec Arsenal property.

Addressing any violations at the property that could pose a harm to the public is the highest priority, city councilors said at their meeting Thursday night. They also plan to direct the city’s attorney to look into any violations of the city’s property maintenance ordinance, historic preservation rules, a public use agreement for portions of the property and any other potential violations of city ordinances.

North Carolina developer Tom Niemann, who paid a down payment of $280,000 for the property to the state some 14 years ago and claimed he would redevelop it with new uses such as retail and residential space, has not redeveloped any of the property or its eight primarily granite-block buildings.

“I think what we need to do is make the ownership of this building to him as uncomfortable as we absolutely positively can, so he’s ready to move on,” Ward 2 City Councilor Kevin Judkins said Thursday, after a group of citizens asked city officials to do something to prevent the Arsenal’s further deterioration. “Because so far it has been a very comfortable cushion. And I think we need to turn it into a pin cushion.”

Robert Overton, director of code enforcement, said he walked the property earlier this week and it is clearly in violation of the city’s property maintenance ordinance. He said 13 or 14 violations were repeated in most of the complex’s buildings.

“Certainly we saw a number of items that could cause an injury to somebody,” Overton said, when asked by city councilors about safety problems at the site. “Deteriorating wooden structures, porches that are unsound. The property is riddled with sinkholes, some a foot deep, six inches wide, some of them 5 feet wide, 4 feet deep with an exposed underground electrical cable running through it.”

The National Historic Landmark collection of granite buildings, built by the federal government between 1828 and 1838, is considered by some preservationists to be among the best and earliest surviving examples of 19th century munitions depots in the country.

Reached by phone Friday, Niemann insisted his company is maintaining  and has invested in the property, including paying for security workers to monitor the site. He said he is working on an application to the city, to renovate the complex’s Commandant’s Quarters into the home of Renewal Family Center, which would offer treatment to families suffering from addiction and mental health issues.

“We’re moving forward with the Commandant’s Quarters,” Niemann said. He declined to address the ongoing concerns of area residents that he hasn’t maintained or preserved the property. “We’re going to continue to stay the course on what our development plans are. We’ve got an engineering firm helping us with the plans, we’re trying to get going on the first building.”

Overton said the only permit application he is aware of the city receiving was for a sign for the site, which he said wasn’t granted because it needs to be reviewed by the Planning Board.

Longtime Augusta resident Connie Hanson said she and other citizens formed Concerned Citizens for Augusta Historical Preservation of the Kennebec Arsenal “after 14 years of deterioration, of worsening deterioration,” of the Arsenal since the state sold it to Niemann. “We pursue this to see that our beloved Arsenal is preserved and redeveloped into a community asset,” she said.

She said she had learned two developers tried to purchase the property from Niemann, for $1 million, in recent years but said he declined those offers.

Hanson said it has been frustrating to see the successful redevelopment of the former Stevens School property in Hallowell into housing and other new uses, while the Arsenal continues to languish. She said a redeveloped Arsenal property could make Augusta a true destination for visitors.

The former Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta sits idle 14 years after a developer purchased the property with promises to redevelop it. Now, councilors and neighbors are fed up with the owner’s inaction and want to see some development take place. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)

Kim Davis was a city councilor and state legislator when she said Niemann approached the city and state with plans to redevelop the then-vacant Arsenal. Her property abuts the Arsenal’s Commandant’s Quarters property, and she said the neighborhood deserves a vibrant, compatible use at the Arsenal site. Davis said Niemann has previously indicated the Commandant’s Quarters would be his offices and maybe his home, and expressed concern a drug rehabilitation center there would not be compatible with the neighborhood. Nor does she want to see the property remain undeveloped.

“We met with him; we rallied with him. He made us promises we hoped would come to fruition,” Davis said. “No one, more than myself, would love to see that property be a viable asset to the community, as Mr. Niemann has promised.”

In 2018 Niemann and a business partner, Dennis Parnell, proposed to locate a facility to offer substance abuse and other treatment to veterans in a building they proposed to build adjacent to the Arsenal property. That project, which Parnell acknowledged under questioning from councilors at the time had no funding, was greeted with skepticism from state and local officials.

Niemann was sued for his handling of the Arsenal by the state in 2013, in a lawsuit which claimed he hadn’t adequately preserved or maintained the buildings,  which was later dropped after both sides reached an agreement in which Niemann committed to better maintaining the site. And in 2017 the Greater Augusta Utility District initiated foreclosure proceedings because Niemann hadn’t paid $60,000 in stormwater fees, but those proceedings were halted when that bill was paid up.

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