Alternate Uses article in Courier 2003

Published in The Courier May 7, 2003
reprinted with permission

Nonprofit Northern Forest Center considers Highland Croft

By LYN BIXBY, Courier Staff

LITTLETON—The Highland Croft estate, a potential site for a Home Depot store two months ago, is now being eyed by the founder of the Northern Forest Center, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Concord.

Stephen Blackmer, the center’s president, said Littleton Economic Development Coordinator Don Jutton suggested a few weeks ago that Blackmer consider the possibility of basing his organization at Highland Croft.

“I was intrigued by it right away,” Blackmer said Monday. “Littleton is really an obvious place for us to be based, and that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. But I hadn’t thought we were at the point where we might actually be doing something about it.”

He said he recently drove by the site, but did not have time to look around. However, he said members of his staff were excited after exploring the former farm and its distinctive, large stone bungalow that was built in 1911 by a steel industry executive.

“Based on what they’ve told me and the photos I’ve seen, I’m intrigued,” he said. “What it would take to stabilize it, restore it, and use it, I don’t know.”

The property, which is in a commercial zone next to I-93 at Exit 43, has a $1.5 million asking price, and the Northern Forest Center has a $500,000 operating budget with a staff of six.

Blackmer said his organization does not have the kind of money it would take to purchase the estate. “But with the right set of partnerships with the right kind of interest from the town, from the state, from the congressional delegation, those kinds of things can get put together, the kind of funding for an interesting, appealing sort of timely project,” he said. “And we’re pretty good at putting together those kinds of partnerships.”

Blackmer said he hopes to find time in the next couple of weeks to return to town to talk further with Jutton, as well as the leaders of a local Highland Croft preservation group.

The group has created an organization called the Highland Croft Foundation and is applying for tax-exempt status. “Our interest is wider than preserving buildings,” said Deborah Warner, one of the leaders. “We also want to preserve the culture of the North Country.”

The Northern Forest Center was formed in 1997 to build a consensus to conserve and enhance the cultural, civic, economic and environmental wealth of the northern forest region, which extends from Maine to the Adirondacks in New York state.

Blackmer said he and his staff do a lot of traveling throughout the region, and Littleton offers easy access to go north and south, as well as east and west.

The Highland Croft property was unavailable for about a year because it was under contract to Robert MacPherson, a Massachusetts developer who has built a number of Home Depot stores. But he dropped his option in March after the Army Corps of Engineers issued a warning that demolition of historic buildings on the site could jeopardize wetlands permits that might be needed to develop it.

The corps, which regulates wetland areas, was reacting to a letter from James McConaha, the state’s historic preservation officer, who said some Highland Croft buildings would likely be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

A Home Depot spokesman said late last week that company representatives are scouting other sites in Littleton.

Blackmer said he talked briefly with a couple of members of the board of directors of the National Forest Center about the possibility of relocating the organization to the Highland Croft property.

“They sort of rolled their eyes at me, but they didn’t say no,” he said. “Sometimes opportunities happen when you’re not expecting them, and they can be the best thing in the world.”

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