Customs eyes move to new building: City council pledges to keep USCIS here

A sign warns against trespassing outside of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services’ current St. Albans City campus. (TOM BENTON, Messenger Staff)

ST. ALBANS CITY — The city council conditionally approved an extra-territorial water-wastewater allocation for the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) proposed relocation Monday night.

Right now, the St. Albans USCIS office stands on Lower Welden Street. Pizzagalli Properties developed that current office building with the federal government and St. Albans City’s coordination, and completed the building in 1990.

Now Pizzagalli Properties proposes moving the USCIS office to a new facility on the corner of Vermont Route 104, near Interstate 89 Exit 19. 

Bob Bouchard, Pizzagalli Properties’ development manager, told the city council Monday that the federal government solicited Pizzagalli’s services in developing a 130,000-square-foot  general office building with 718 parking spaces.

Bouchard said Pizzagalli Properties has already secured property for the potential new office building from property owner Sam Smith.

Bouchard said transferring the office to a new site despite having a pre-existing building leaves “a tough road to hoe … but it’s a nice site, we got it for a competitive price … [it has] great access to the interstate and amenities. 

“We can offer what we think is a very competitive price to the federal government. So we’re going to go after it. In earnest.”

“Going after it,” in this case, means Pizzagalli Properties’ response to the federal government’s RLP, request for lease proposal, which Bouchard said is an expensive process: a month spent putting together a proposal, followed by full civil and architectural drawings.

Prior to those steps, Bouchard said Pizzagalli Properties felt it was “prudent” to apply for a water and wastewater allocation from the city.

“If we cannot get water and wastewater allocation from the city it’s kind of a moot point,” Bouchard said.

Mayor Tim Smith recused himself from the council’s discussion of this matter due to his position as the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp.’s executive director, which Smith said is a conflict of interest. Council member Chad Spooner led the discussion in Smith’s place.

Spooner asked Bouchard for a construction timetable. Bouchard said the base building takes nine months to construct, and then another four months before the building’s completion. 

After a clarifying question from councilor Mike McCarthy, Bouchard further explained that Pizzagalli Properties expects the new property occupied in spring 2021, assuming smooth progress henceforth, with designs and permits in place next spring.

City Manager Dominic Cloud stepped in ahead of a motion to make sure Bouchard understood that the city’s affiliation fee is annual, not a one-time fee, like the allocation fee, which buys the necessary capacity. 

Bouchard said he wasn’t aware of that.

Cloud explained the yearly affiliation fee is 28 cents per $100 of appraised value, and that’s it a fee, not a tax.

“The affiliation fee grows out of the decades-long efforts of St. Albans City and Town to figure out a way to work together,” Cloud said. “Obviously, when a property is located in one community, using water and wastewater from another community, the proceeds from that development don’t necessarily flow equally.”

Cloud said the affiliation fee “allows the city to share in some of the development potential.”

Councilor Tim Hawkins made the motion to approve the water-wastewater allocation “exclusively for use as presented in the application,” noting it’s not transferable to another use without the council’s permission and that it expires in three years, if the project is not completed or the permit extended.

“In addition,” Hawkins said, “the applicant shall recognize that the City of St. Albans is steadfast in its efforts to retain this operation in the City of St. Albans and will diligently pursue all efforts to keep this facility within the City of St. Albans.”

Councilor Jim Pelkey seconded the motion and the council carried it without dissent.

Bouchard said he recognized “this was not an easy decision for the city council.” City staff prepared a question and answer packet for the council ahead of the meeting, based on conversations with Pizzagalli Properties.

Bouchard said Pizzagalli “didn’t mean to put [the council] on the spot,” and that Pizzagalli “appreciates the transparency.”

“As long as you guys are aware that we’re going to try to keep [the USCIS],” Pelkey said.

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