Binnie places winning bid on former Walker School

Last modified: Monday, January 07, 2013
The Concord School Board has agreed to sell the former Walker School to Seacoast businessman and media executive Bill Binnie, who offered to pay $900,000 for it at a public auction yesterday morning.

Binnie, a plastics mogul who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, outbid Concord Group Insurance Inc. for the 16,000-square-foot property and signed a purchase and sale agreement immediately after the auction.

The sale will enable Binnie to locate the WBIN radio and television group in the nearly 100-year old building, which closed this year as part of consolidation of the city schools. Binnie’s move is part of a larger New England expansion that includes the purchase of radio stations in New Hampshire and Maine.

“We’re thrilled, we really are,” Binnie said in the conference room at Upton and Hatfield law firm in Concord where the auction was held. He also handed over a $50,000 cashier’s check as a deposit.

Binnie has said he’d like to see the Walker School continue as a resource for the community. In particular, he wants students to have access to the studios, which he said will include news production.

“We’re one of the very few state capitals in the country that doesn’t have a full news bureau,” Binnie said.

WBIN has hosted debates for candidates seeking statewide and federal office, including the presidency. Binnie said he hopes to host such events in what used to be the auditorium of the school. Walker is located at the intersection of North Main, Bouton and Church streets.

“For kids K through 12, that is such a great civic learning opportunity,” school board President Kass Ardinger said after the auction. She said she was “delighted” by the result.

By the end of the roughly 50-minute auction, Binnie had outbid the insurance company, which had hoped to expand its headquarters on Bouton Street. Its plans would have included moving employees from its property in Bow.

Linda Day, president and CEO of Concord Group, did not respond to the Monitor’s requests for comment.

The bidding started at 9:20 a.m. with $620,000, the last offer Binnie had made before the auction. The offers went in minimum increments of $10,000. At 10:07, Concord Group offered $860,000. Two minutes later, Binnie offered $900,000, and Concord Group Insurance bowed out.

Ardinger and Jack Dunn, the district’s business manager, grew visibly more relaxed as the size of the bids increased.

The eventual $900,000 was almost $400,000 more than the very first offer of $512,000 the district had received over the summer from Stratford Capital Group of Peabody, Mass. It would have converted the building into senior housing, but that offer had so many strings attached that the district eventually decided to entertain bids only from Binnie and Concord Group Insurance.

Binnie had initially offered $575,000 for the property, and Concord Group offered $610,000 a few weeks later. The district set up yesterday’s auction to settle the matter. Officials said other considerations – such as whether the property would become taxable and how its new use would affect the neighborhood – were similar for the two bidders.

The purchase comes with some restrictions, according to the agreement.

Binnie can make “no alteration or addition” that would impair the historic facade of the building, and any alterations should preserve the building’s historic character. Any use must also preserve the historic marker at the southeastern corner of the property. And finally, should the building need to be rebuilt for almost any reason, any new construction would have to be “architecturally compatible with the neighborhood” and “reflect the historic nature of the Walker School site.”

The renovation of the building could cost “seven digits” and take up to a year, Binnie said. He’s also said that radio and TV operation would begin with about 30 employees.

Binnie is also in talks to buy the former police headquarters in Laconia, a building that has some challenges, including asbestos, he said. Binnie said yesterday that he intends to have a strong radio foothold there as well as in Concord and Lebanon.

He purchased 30 radio stations from the bankrupt Nassau Broadcasting chain in May, later selling 13 of them. He also operates WBIN out of Derry, a TV station he bought last year that includes a broadcast news department.

All costs related to the Walker School purchase, including legal fees, will be covered by Binnie, school officials said.

The school district still needs to provide a clear title and warranty deed for the property. The agreement says the deal needs to close by March, but officials yesterday said they hope the transaction concludes earlier than that.

The Concord School District put Walker School and several others up for sale after it opened three new elementary schools this year.

Yesterday’s auction came the morning after another development in those sales.

Wednesday night, a subcommittee of the Concord School Board gave an early nod to Christ the King Parish to buy the former Rumford School on Thorndike Street for $600,000. The parish says it wants to renovate Rumford School and eventually move its students from St. John Regional School there. The school board is expected to make a final decision on that proposal in early December.

Ardinger said yesterday that the board needs to decide into which accounts it will deposit the proceeds from those sales.

Meanwhile, conversations continue with city officials regarding the transfer of Dame School to the city for a community center. Plans for Eastman School stalled after neighborhood residents decried plans to sell the site to a company that runs assisted living facilities. Concord’s Boys & Girls Club has shown an interest in renting Eastman while its own building is renovated. Those negotiations are ongoing, officials say.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors )