The Smith Baker Center on Merrimack Street, with its majestic interior shown here, will be up for bid soon. SUN file photo / David H. BrowSun staff photos
The Smith Baker Center on Merrimack Street, with its majestic interior shown here, will be up for bid soon. SUN file photo / David H. Brow 

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LOWELL -- A new owner, the Coalition for a Better Acre, has finally been approved for the long-vacant Smith Baker Center.

The coalition was the lone bidder last summer, but the city, which owns the building, wanted to make sure the organization had the ability to turn the Smith Baker Center into a new community and performance center.

The City Council unanimously approved the sale of the building on Tuesday for $300,000.

"We've been waiting so long," said Yun-Ju Choi, the coalition's executive director, after receiving congratulations from many in the audience. "It's really exciting to get the vote, but the hard work starts now."

The Coalition for a Better Acre had been exploring taking over the Smith Baker Center for some time, including holding a community forum last April to get input from residents. The group envisions a performance space in the building's main hall upstairs, and a community center in the smaller space downstairs.

The coalition has been exploring partnerships with various entities to hold events there.

The Smith Baker Center, which stands across Merrimack Street from the Pollard Memorial Library, has been vacant since 2003, when the senior center moved out. It was built in 1884 as a church, and was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That historical designation is likely to help with much of the cost of making the building modern and usable again. Choi has said the project will rely on state and federal historical tax credits for much of the renovation.

The most recent cost estimate for renovations from a 2012 study was bout $6 million, though officials believe that figure has increased The process of securing funding and completing the necessary work to the building is expected to take about two years.

As part of the agreement with the city, the Coalition for a Better Acre's $300,000 payment for the building will be reimbursed by the city when the renovation is complete.

Councilors commended Choi and the coalition for their work in coming up with the plan.

"I have the utmost confidence this will be carried out to completion," said Jim Milinazzo, who served on a committee that recommended the coalition be chosen for the building.

Milinazzo called the plans a potential "legacy project" for Councilor Rodney Elliott, who as mayor chaired the committee.

Choi thanked her staff, saying she couldn't have done it alone. The coalition will also work with partners, including the estate of Jack Kerouac for naming of the center, and in some capacity with UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, the Lowell National Historical Park and others.

"This is really not just a CBA project," she said, using an acronym for the group.

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