NEW BEDFORD (WBSM) — UMass Dartmouth will be pulling its classes from the historic Star Store building in downtown New Bedford, effective immediately, after this year’s state budget did not include funding for its continued operation.

Chancellor Mark Fuller sent out an email to the UMD community Monday morning informing them that there would be no classes at the Star Store for the upcoming fall semester, and that the university was looking to “ensure that the 24 organized classroom activities involving 116 students scheduled to be held in the Star Store in the fall semester can, to the extent possible, be relocated to appropriate facilities.”

“We are in the process of securing some temporary classrooms to help mitigate the pressure on our instructional space,” Fuller wrote. “We are also in the process of looking for alternative space in which to house the Worker’s Education Program in New Bedford.”

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Governor Maura Healey signed the Commonwealth’s $56 billion Fiscal Year 2024 budget on August 9, more than a month after it was originally due on June 30. The budget did not include allocations to keep UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts in the Star Store campus, something the Commonwealth had been fully funding since 2001.

“However, amid many pressing needs to serve the people of the Commonwealth, next year’s state budget was not able to accommodate the funds to support UMass Dartmouth’s continuing use of the facility,” Fuller wrote.

The Star Store had been a major stimulus in the economic revitalization of New Bedford’s downtown over the past 20-plus years.

The Star Store campus serves roughly 200 students each year in the university’s studio arts programs. The university’s original lease expired in 2021. There had been plans last year for the Commonwealth to purchase the 19th-century department store building from developer Paul Downey for $1.

“We explored every avenue to remain in the building. The unfortunate reality is that, given the Star Store’s age, its deferred maintenance needs are very significant, with repairs needed to multiple systems in the near term,” Fuller wrote. “Additionally, recent state legislation now prevents the university from maintaining the building in any way, which we understand to extend to our routine cleaning and maintenance contract.”

Fuller said “ongoing budgetary constraints” would keep UMass from being able to fund its use of the Star Store on its own.

“Simply put, even were the building gifted to (the UMass Building Authority) for our use today, we could not afford to operate it next year without state assistance, much less make the most urgently needed repairs and begin to renovate it to meet the needs of the next generation of students,” Fuller wrote.

New Bedford City Councilor at Large Brian Gomes has filed a motion for this Thursday's council meeting asking for state officials as well as Mayor Jon Mitchell “develop an immediate plan to assure the Star Store building in downtown New Bedford will continue to be utilized as a UMass Dartmouth campus and that all programs previously operating in that space will continue to do so this Fall and into the future academic years.”

In appearance on WBSM’s Barry Richard Show on Monday, Gomes questioned why there was no discussion about this in the weeks leading up to the budget’s passing.

“Where has everybody been on this issue, and how is this just coming to light when it’s two weeks before the fall semester starts?” he said. “To have this taken out of here will be very devastating, and I'd like to know where everyone has been on this.”

“How did this slip past everybody and there was no fight?” he said. “Where was everybody? Where’s the mayor? The mayor of the city should have known about it, and if he knew about it, what was his action being taken on it?”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell issued a statement Monday afternoon saying he was just as surprised.

“Minutes before his public announcement this morning, Chancellor Fuller called to inform me of his decision to relocate the CVPA from the downtown,” Mitchell said. “To say that I reacted with surprise and dismay is an understatement. The CVPA has anchored the downtown’s cultural scene for over twenty years, extending the century-long work of its predecessor, the Swain School of Design.”

Mitchell said he'd been trying to work with all parties involved to help keep the CVPA in the Star Store.

“At various points in the last year, I have offered the parties involved in the negotiations over the future of the CVPA – area legislators, UMass, the owner of the Star Store building, and the state administration – my help in facilitating an agreement,” Mitchell said. “The fact that none of them thought my involvement was necessary, and that no one informed me that the university was on the brink of pulling out of the City, suggested to me that a new agreement was merely a matter of time.”

Gomes also pointed to the recent revelation that the Commonwealth is spending $45 million per month to assist migrant families coming into the state as something money is being spent on instead of funding the Star Store campus.

“Forty-five million in the budget to house illegal immigrants but we don’t have the money to continue an operation that is so vital to the UMass campus, to the city of New Bedford, the downtown area,” Gomes said. “I don’t understand that. I would have been fighting for it.”

Mitchell too felt that the "no room in the budget" argument doesn't hold water.

“The notion that the University’s decision ultimately hinged on whether a particular line item was included in the new state budget strains credulity,” Mitchell said. “All the state entities and legislators have long been aware of the need to develop a new funding arrangement for the CVPA at the Star Store that would address the acquisition, maintenance, and operating costs once the original lease expired in 2021. All the parties have had several years to structure an agreement which would put the CVPA on a firm, long-term footing in our downtown.”

“The failure to arrive at an agreement will now be felt by the students, faculty, residents, local businesses, and the City, which stands to lose a major anchor institution,” he said.

Gomes said there “has to be an emergency meeting with the governor” and that there “has to be an amendment to the budget or whatever to keep this vital part of the city of New Bedford.”

Mitchell echoed that sentiment in his statement.

“The City will attempt to work with the state administration in the hope that this short-sighted decision can be rectified.”

What Local Legislators Are Saying About UMass Dartmouth Leaving the Star Store

Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), who led the legislative effort to turn the Star Store into campus for the CVPA, issued the following statement:

“Despite objections, the university has decided to vacate the building that the legislature paid for with over 20 years of appropriations. I am deeply disappointed that DCAMM and the university neglected multiple opportunities to meet their basic responsibility to protect taxpayers and students by neglecting to secure the campus in accordance with my original legislation that created and funded this campus as well as state law signed just last year. As the lease and state law have required, the building should be immediately transferred for one dollar so that taxpayer money will no longer be squandered, and all the interested parties can work together to ensure Star Store’s long-term future in downtown New Bedford. I believe we can accomplish this goal, and I will continue working directly with the Healey Administration and Secretary Gorzkowicz to protect the public’s long-term investment with integrity and transparency.”

State Representative Tony Cabral (D-New Bedford):

“Today’s decision by UMass Dartmouth to vacate their downtown campus at the Star Store and consolidate their arts program on the main Dartmouth campus is not only a shock and disappointment but leaves the highly successful Workers’ Education Program (WEP) without a home, two weeks before classes begin. The issues involved are very nuanced, but negotiations between the property owner, UMass, and the state have been ongoing for the past year. The House included funding for UMass Dartmouth’s downtown campus in its version of the FY24 budget this year, recognizing that the conversation on the lease would need to continue – but at the same time, the focus has been on how to successfully transfer ownership of the Star Store to UMass Dartmouth. This provision was a critical part of the initial lease signed 20 years ago by all parties. In the two decades since, millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been committed to the Star Store campus. But today we find ourselves in this situation --with New Bedford potentially losing a vibrant downtown campus that contributes mightily to our city’s thriving arts and culture scene, and the Workers’ Ed Program, a program that helps many New Bedford residents set themselves on a successful path by learning another language, prepping for the HiSet and GED, and so much more. I am committed to finding a resolution that will see the Star Store Campus remain a focal point for the arts and education in New Bedford.”

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