$500,000 donation to save gasholder raises hopes but doesn’t guarantee its future

  • John Horangic of Bishop Brady High School joins the Save the Gasholder event on South Main Street on Dec. 29. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 1/8/2021 4:55:33 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 4:55:19 PM

An anonymous donation of $500,000 has given new hope to the idea of saving Concord’s gasholder, although the fate of the historic building is far from settled.

The donation was announced Friday at the final meeting of the ad-hoc Gasholder Committee, which recommended that the city council accept a report outlining a multi-year, multi-million-dollar plan to save the building as a cornerstone of neighborhood development. The committee unanimously said Concord staff should begin discussions with the building’s owner, Liberty Utilities, about how to proceed.

The city council could take up the matter at its next meeting, which starts Monday at 7 p.m.

The big news from Friday’s meeting was the anonymous donation, which is probably large enough to stabilize the building and keep it from further short-term damage. However, it’s not clear whether the donation can be used that way unless other money is also used.

“All I can say . . . is that this commitment was designed to be a catalyst for other investment,” said Jennifer Goodman, director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, after announcing the donation. “We will be in touch with the donor to make sure … but ‘momentum-builder’ is the theme we have heard from the donor.”

The donation falls well short of the roughly $3 million price tag that a feasibility study said is needed to fully develop the 132-year-old building as a historical monument and gateway to the city’s southern end, even if it was combined with Liberty Utilities’ interest in contributing at least $400,000, the cost of demolition. But the donation is the first sign of significant outside money to help the project, which all parties agree will be needed if the gasholder is to be preserved.

“We’ve been talking about the gasholder for a long time,” said Frank Lemay, owner of Milestone Engineering in Concord and a member of the committee. “We’re on a good path right now, where it’s more than talk.”

Liberty Utilities said last year it planned to apply this week for a demolition permit for the gasholder but has not done so, said Huck Montgomery, director of government affairs for the utility.

“We did not do that this week, in part because we’re very optimistic and hopeful about the pieces that are coming together,” Montgomery told the meeting. But he added that this forbearance isn’t open-ended: “It is not acceptable to Liberty for the building to continue in the state it is in for another year. The calendar year 2021 is the time frame we have.”

The ad-hoc committee, which includes five city council members, has been meeting for more than a year to develop plans for saving the building as well as to raise interest in its future.

A report from ADG consultants titled “Preservation and Redevelopment Feasibility Options for the Concord Gasholder” says it would take at least $411,000, spent soon, to keep the building from deteriorating beyond repair, due largely to water damage that has happened since a falling tree punched a hole in the roof in 2014.

The report suggests a three-stage process, starting with short-term stabilization of the building and then proceeding through at least two years of fundraising and development and preservation of the building as a historical monument that might be accompanied by commercial development on the 2.4-acre site.

Concord’s gasholder was built in 1888 to hold flammable gas made from coal that had been brought to the site by rail car. It served that purpose until 1952, when natural gas pipelines reached the city. The building, 88 feet in diameter and almost 30 feet high in the center, is a single circular room that holds a massive floating metal cap that could contain up to 120,000 cubic feet of coal gas.

The gasholder was built with roughly 550,000 bricks, most of them made in the Holt brickyard, located where Grappone Automotive Group now sits. A second, larger gasholder made of metal on the site was torn down decades ago.

Gasholder buildings were once popular around the country and many still remain, sometimes turned into offices or museums. Concord’s gasholder is probably unique because it still contains the entire mechanism, including the massive cap atop the gas, which floated up and down as an indication of how full the building was. This increases its historic value but complicates reuse.

“The good news … is that the project is doable,” said Goodman. “It’s not simple, but it’s doable – with great community benefits.”

The biggest uncertainty around the building’s future is Liberty Utility’s contribution. Montgomery emphasized several times that as a regulated utility, Liberty is unlikely to get permission from the Public Utilities Commission to spend more on the building than is needed to demolish it. He also threw cold water on suggestions that Liberty’s parent company, Algonquin Power, might cover some extra restoration cost.

Councilor Jennifer Kretovic has been critical of Liberty’s failure to maintain the gasholder building since it obtained the site in 2012 when it bought National Grid’s gas business in New Hampshire. She suggested Friday that the company should sell it to the city for $1 while maintaining the company’s responsibility for any future pollution remediation. Montgomery said that Liberty Utilities has that responsibility “in perpetuity,” no matter what happens with ownership changes.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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