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Gougeons lone bidder for Florence Community Center

Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.

Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

The Gougeon family of Northampton offered to buy the former Florence Grammar School at 140 Pine St. for $321,500 under the newly formed Florence Arts & Business Center. It pledged to retain tenants already leasing space in the building, according to a sealed bid proposal opened at City Hall.

“Keeping the artists is really important, and the small businesses,” said Robert E. Gougeon, who attended the bid opening with his wife, April A. Gougeon. “There are some great tenants in there.”

Mayor David J. Narkewicz said he plans to review the proposal with the City Council’s Finance Committee before making a decision on selling the property. The property was appraised at $270,000 and the city estimates it needs $1.2 million worth of work.

“We’re going to act on it as soon as we can,” Narkewicz said.

Central Services Director David Pomerantz said he issued 12 bid packets to prospective buyers.

“I never am surprised at the number of bidders who respond or don’t respond to requests for proposals,” Pomerantz said. “It is what it is.”

The Gougeons, along with Robert E. Gougeon’s father, Robert W. Gougeon, submitted the bid as partners. The trio own several businesses and properties in the city, including Florence Towing and Auto Repair in Florence and Searles Auto Recycling on Easthampton Road (Route 10). The family earlier bought and rehabilitated a 30,000-square-foot factory building at 40 Main St. in Florence center that is known as Brick Mill Square. The building is home to more than 20 small businesses and professional office spaces.

The proposal provides a measure of relief to tenants — and possible new opportunities.

All 15 tenant leases with the city expire in June and many tenants were making preparations to go.

“My reaction is that this is good news,” said Steve Unkles, owner of the Audio-Visual Archives, a media production firm based in the center for 17 years.

“I was sort of scratching my head about who this would actually be a good investment for. I wasn’t sure who would go for it,” he said.

Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity occupies an office on the second floor of the old school building and had set up a task force to review its options. The nonprofit group is now interested in talking about using more space in the building, said its executive director, Elizabeth Bridgewater.

“We would be very interested in being able to stay,” Bridgewater said. “This is welcome news.”

‘Keep them growing’

“We want to keep the small businesses around in Florence that we’re a part of and to keep them growing,” April Gougeon said of her family’s interest in the community center. She added that her family looks forward to working with the newly formed tenants association at the Florence Community Center.

If it acquires the property, Robert E. Gougeon said his family’s first order of business is replacing the Florence Community Center’s dated and inefficient heating system, as well as making drainage repairs. He said the building is structurally sound and he seemed undeterred by the amount of work that needs to be done, including installing new energy-efficient windows as outlined in the proposal.

“With a new heating system and the upgrades, it’s affordable to keep them all (tenants) in there,” Robert E. Gougeon said.

The family said it plans to provide spaces for artists at reasonable rates, with the hope of attracting additional artists and small businesses. It also plans to contact the Northampton Center for the Arts to offer that organization adequate space for relocation. The arts organization is one of the groups that expressed interest in the building.

The Gougeons, who are fifth-generation homeowners in Northampton, said they would commit to their proposed use of the building for 20 years. They also have proposed keeping the building’s auditorium space available for community events, performances and meetings at reasonable rates.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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