NEWPORT – After the Newport city solicitor released a “letter of interest” Wednesday outlining the possible terms of a sale of the city’s armory to the National Sailing Hall of Fame for $1.7 million, Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop said he hoped that the museum would make key improvements to the armory that the city cannot finance itself.
The letter between Newport City Solicitor Christopher Behan and Joseph Olaynack, attorney for the Hall of Fame, would offer the nonprofit the main hall on the first floor and the second floor, while the city would continue to own the Newport Maritime Center in the basement.
The terms indicate that the city would retain ownership over the right of way that leads to the water and the Ann Street Pier. When news first broke about a possible sale, Newport’s Friends of the Waterfront petitioned City Hall to reject the sale.
Winthrop said that the museum would become a tourist destination for sailors.
“Newport is a sailing mecca known around the world, we’re known as the sailing capital of the world,” he said. “To have the Sailing Hall of Fame in Newport is the crowning jewel.”
He also expects the Hall of Fame to invest about $1 million into new displays for the museum, and to make additional capital improvements to the building. The roof alone needs over $300,000 in work, Winthrop added.
“It is a huge benefit to Newport to have them helping with the maintenance so that we can put our money into other investments,” Winthrop said, noting the city’s need for road repairs in areas such as Bellevue Avenue.
Winthrop said he hopes that with a sale, the city can stop playing the role of landlord. “We’re not in the business of doing business, we’re in the business of providing services,” he said.
In January, Maryland — where the Hall of Fame began operating in 2005 — removed $1.25 million in funding for the museum, in part due to the organization’s failure to meet fundraising goals.
In leasing a building from the state, the organization was required to spend $9.5 million in construction to redevelop the area into a museum center. But the new facilities have yet to be built. “The National Sailing Hall Fame has consistently failed to meet their obligations under the Memorandum of Understanding with the state,” a spokeswoman for the governor told the Capital Gazette in January.
But the Hall of Fame’s financials look “very solid,” Winthrop said. “Their latest 990 form shows that they have $2.7 million in assets, and they’re going to purchase the building for a little less than $1.7 [million].”
That would leave them with $1 million for the investments in museum. Winthrop also said that donors around Newport had committed $1.5 million to the museum already.
“The financial commitment was significantly higher there in Maryland,” he said. “They spent $6 [million] to $7 million in operating costs, and they were never able to get ahead.”
Executive director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame Lee Tawney declined to comment. The organization’s president could not be reached for comment.
Currently, the first floor of the Armory is leased to Armory Antique Marketplace, owned by Anthony Zaloumis and Cindy Lee. Zaloumis said that the roughly 20 people employed by the marketplace and the 100 dealers it served could lose their livelihood if the sale goes through.
Zaloumis said he did not know where the dealers would be able to go if the space was sold.
“We’ve searched throughout the city and there’s no place available that’s a reasonable price,” he added. “The rents are too high to make it feasible to run that operation.”
Winthrop said that the city has leased the space to the Armory Antique Marketplace for one third of market rent.
Zaloumis expressed worry that the museum would create a parking problem for the city. “For us it wasn’t a problem because most of our traffic is tourists walking down Thames Street.”
He argued that the museum would not bring in sustained tourism. “I don’t think the average tourist is going to go to a sailing museum, and not more than one time,” he said. Of the antique market, he added, “We are a catalyst for all of Thames Street as far as getting the customers beyond Memorial Boulevard.”
Winthrop said that the city had received two proposals concerning the space – the one from the Sailing Hall of Fame, and another by Zaloumis, who he said asked the city to give the armory to him free of charge to establish a nonprofit there.
To stay in their current home, Zaloumis also suggested that the antique market could start paying higher rent to the city instead, as well as secure resources to repair the roof through grant funds.
The letter of interest will go to the City Council on Wednesday for a vote of approval, which would allow negotiations between the city and the museum. Any final sale would also need to be approved by City Council, Winthrop said.
Should the museum purchase the armory, it would enter a restrictive covenant with the city, which would allow Newport to approve of any future sale of the museum’s unit.
The city also will not solicit any other proposals regarding the armory for the next 90 days, according to the letter of intent. A closing will take place within 90 days of the possible sale, it adds.
Kate Talerico is a PBN contributor.