The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is closing its College of Visual and Performing Arts satellite campus in downtown New Bedford, abruptly relocating all classes and studios to the state university’s main campus in Dartmouth. The move will end a 20-year occupancy of a former department store, which helped spark a revitalization of downtown New Bedford as an arts and culture district.

The closure was announced in an email to faculty on Monday, less than two weeks before the start of the school year, after negotiations fell apart between the university, state officials and the private owner of the Star Store, who had a longstanding agreement to eventually transfer ownership to the state for a nominal price of $1.

“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,” the university’s chancellor, Mark Fuller, said in the email.

The Star Store, a striking Beaux Arts building with large windows framed by moldings fit for a wedding cake, houses four floors of studios and classrooms brimming with decades worth of student art, as well as three galleries on the ground floor whose exhibition openings often headline broader arts celebrations throughout downtown New Bedford.

Many alumni from the school have stayed in downtown New Bedford after graduation, renting apartments and opening professional galleries and studios in storefronts that might otherwise have remained vacant.

The Star Store also hosts the Workers Education Program, which teaches language classes that help immigrants seek better employment, and leases space to the South Coast Bureau of The Public’s Radio.

The building was constructed around the turn of the 20th century as a grand department store in the heart of a seaport with a booming textile industry. The Star Store closed in 1985, facing competition from suburban shopping centers, leaving behind an ornate husk of a building the size of half a city block that loomed over a fading downtown.

In the 1990s, the Massachusetts legislature, driven by strong advocacy from New Bedford’s state senator Mark Montigny, appropriated public money to support a private developer’s rehabilitation of the property. The legislation arranged for a 20-year lease-to-own agreement between the private owner — Star Store Holdings, LLC, a company controlled by local real estate developer Paul Downey — and the state agency acting on behalf of UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Under the arrangement, the state’s Department of Capital and Asset Management and Maintenance has been paying Downey’s company at least $2.3 million per year for the past 20 years. The agreement included an option for the state to purchase the building for a nominal fee of $1 shortly before the lease's expiration in 2021.

The Covid pandemic triggered widespread lockdowns in March 2020, delaying discussions about the Star Store. During that span, the Massachusetts legislature appropriated funds to extend the lease for two more years through June 2023.

But negotiations over the Star Store’s ownership quietly went off the rails last summer, when a pair of state agencies sent Star Store Holdings, LLC a notice seeking to exercise their option to purchase the building for $1.

UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Fuller said Downey, the holding company’s owner, raised “legal challenges” to the purchase, preventing the ownership from changing hands, though Fuller said he is unfamiliar with the nature of the legal concerns.

“He's not a person that I've ever called or spoken with,” Fuller said.

Downey did not respond to requests for comment. The University of Massachusetts Building Authority, the state agency to which Downey allegedly sent his legal concerns, could not be reached immediately for comment.

A summary of legal advice from the building authority’s counsel, obtained by The Public’s Radio, advised Fuller that Star Store Holdings argued — “with some basis” — that the option to buy the building had lapsed by the time the state tried to exercise it.

As negotiations stalled over the sale of the building, the state legislature held up an appropriation of at least $20 million for short-term maintenance needs at the Star Store, like the replacement of a leaking roof and a malfunctioning air conditioning system. The state agencies involved in the transaction have estimated the full range of repairs needed to bring the facility up to current environmental standards would cost between $50 million and $70 million.

“We cannot spend state tax dollars on improving private property for a private developer,” said State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, chair of the Ways and Means Committee. “But we were very ready, willing and able to authorize capital expenditures for the building to bring it up to speed once the transfer happened.”

The state budget passed this year by the House included $2.7 million to extend UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store lease. But the budget drawn up by the state senate, which Rodrigues plays a key role in writing, did not.

“They had 23 years to negotiate,” Rodrigues said. “If UMass wanted the building, they would have it.”

The final version of the budget that emerged from reconciliation between the two chambers and arrived on the governor’s desk for approval last week included no money to extend UMass Dartmouth’s lease at the Star Store. Fuller said that left UMass Dartmouth with no choice but to vacate before the school year began.

“We still were hopeful that it would be added back in on the final version that was sent to the governor, or that there'd be some mechanism to restore it, which is why we waited as long as we could on the announcement to vacate,” Fuller said. “It was only when the budget was finalized that we knew there was nothing more to be done.”

UMass Dartmouth faculty received an email Monday morning informing them the university would scramble to make space for as many programs as it could at its main campus in Dartmouth, a sprawling Brutalist complex located near a shopping mall about five miles from downtown New Bedford.

“Interim Provost Ram Bala will work with College of Visual & Performing Arts Dean Lawrence Jenkens 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,” Fuller wrote in the email to faculty.

The Star Store’s impending closure has shocked art students and sent pangs of fear and anger through downtown New Bedford’s artistic and business communities.

New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, said he will attempt to work with the state administration “in the hope that this short-sighted decision can be rectified.”

“To say that I reacted with surprise and dismay is an understatement,” Mitchell said. “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.”

Fuller said he is unsure if there is a solution that could eventually bring about a return of Umass Dartmouth to the Star Store.

“I don’t know what the future holds, I’ll be honest with you,” Fuller said. “We’re trying not to deal with hypotheticals. Right now, we’re just focused on helping our academic programs navigate this unexpected transition so that we can serve our students well this fall.”

Rodrigues said the state legislature could still appropriate capital funding for maintenance needs at the Star Store if leaders from the university and the governor’s administration reach an agreement with Downey on transferring ownership of the Star Store.

“If the university owns the building,” Rodrigues said, “I am sure that we will strongly consider, once again, authorizing money for the maintenance and upkeep of that building.”

One legislator who represents New Bedford, State Rep. Chris Markey, said it’s already time for leaders in the city to move on.

“One can try to place blame on the senate or the university,” Markey said. “However, both would be wrong. Due to changes in enrollment, higher education, and the economy the Star Store proves too costly a facility to provide class space for the 116 students at the CVPA.”

Markey said the Star Store, with its picturesque windows and central location, could be redeveloped as private housing or office space for the offshore wind industry.

“I have no doubt in our ability to find and materialize a beneficial outcome for this property,” Markey said.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.

Disclosure: The Public’s Radio South Coast Bureau is a tenant of UMass Dartmouth at the Star Store.