Salem Judge Rules Against MCC in Lease Dispute, Criticizes Charity's Management


A Salem District Court judge swiftly addressed the future of the Manchester Community Center (MCC) last week, ruling that the organization had violated its commercial lease by overstaying its welcome.  The judge awarded $199,000 in back rent and attorney’s fees to the landlord, Harbor’s Point Condominium Association, effectively exhausting the assets of the 54-year-old local charity.

Judge Richard Mori awarded Harbor’s Point $55,000 in back rent and $144,000 in legal fees, as outlined in the lease signed in 2021 between Harbor’s Point and the MCC.  The MCC is currently appealing the decision.

The trial, lasting less than an hour, concluded a prolonged dispute between the MCC and Harbor’s Point.  

During the trial, Judge Mori attempted no less than six times to prod, nudge, and encourage both parties to compromise and find a way to assure the future of the charity.  He also castigated the MCC for its stubborn and reckless management, saying the board should be referred to the Mass. Attorney General for “mishandling the fiduciary duties” required of a charity.

Harbor’s Point attorneys were prepared to cut a deal that would allow the MCC to continue its tenancy for up to five years.  But Michael Walsh, MCC’s attorney, said the MCC was unwilling to make that deal, insisting on either full ownership rights of the property or a $1 million settlement to vacate.

“I’m trying to cut you a better deal than you’d get  if I ruled on summary judgment,” Judge Mori said.  “(The MCC) is a very laudable organization … I’d hope the organization would continue in some other venue.  You know, there is the Congregational Church that has space.  Or the Legion.”

“My guys have given me the instructions that this is, ‘Do or die’,” responded Walsh.

“Do or die,” the Judge asked incredulously.

“Do or die, your honor,” said Walsh.  “This is where we will place our flag.”

“It’s a public charity,” said Grant Hecht, Harbor’s Point attorney.  “They have certain responsibilities with respect to their money than just throwing it away.”

Walsh acknowledged that Harbor’s Point had made the MCC “several very generous offers” and he’d recommended the MCC board take an offer, to no avail.  He noted there was a block of MCC board members that had simply refused to compromise.  One member, Walsh said, even resigned due to the board’s inability to reach a consensus.

Judge Mori was unimpressed.

“Most people faced with utter defeat would choose to have a piece of the pie rather than no pie,” the judge told Walsh.  

Lost Opportunities

Going into Wednesday, the MCC’s legal path was limited.  A March pre-trial hearing struck down nearly all the MCC’s legal arguments because they either lacked evidence, were frivolous, or were irrelevant.  The only way forward was to somehow argue that the leases the MCC signed should be overlooked or ignored, and Judge Mori ruled the case was simply too weak to argue before a jury and he’d deliver a summary judgment.  

Notably absent from the trial were MCC’s President Patrick Meehan, Co-President Raquel Przesiek, and Executive Director Kim Kaner.

The MCC’s 2,400sf building was originally donated in 1976 by an Essex businessman, Augustus “Gus” Means, as a youth center.   It sits on land owned by Harbor’s Point, next to the train station.  But Means excluded the land from his gift of the building—emphasized by underlining “NO INTEREST IN LAND” in his notarized donor letter.  

For decades the MCC signed a series of land leases, and Harbor’s Point waived the rent each year as a gift to the MCC.   But about five years ago, the relationship soured, and Harbor’s Point required that the MCC pay $200 per month, which it initially refused.  By 2020, the MCC relented, and Harbor’s Point moved the organization to a month-to-month lease.

Last fall, the MCC asked the town to intervene and take over the land lease, which would enable the MCC to continue its programming while the town could use the space for a temporary senior center and other services.  A 10-year agreement was struck between the town and Harbor’s Point and residents overwhelmingly supported the deal at a Nov. 13 Special Town Meeting.  

Weeks later, without notifying the town, the MCC walked away from the deal and said it would move the building entirely from the site within 90 days as per its lease.  The HPCA responded with a formal eviction.  The MCC countersued in Salem Superior Court for $1.2 million.

 “Don Quixote”

To local observers, the rancor has been a mystery.  The MCC is a cherished organization that hosts familiar family-friendly community programs like Halloween’s Wobblin’ Gobblin’ and Santa’s Jingle Bell Walk at Masconomo Park.  Harbor’s Point said in court that the MCC building always seemed empty and unused, especially by senior citizens who had eagerly sought a proper senior center.

According to MCC’s 2022 tax filing, the organization had just under $174,000 in assets, including income of $67,156 from its biggest fundraiser—an annual golf tournament at the Essex County Club—that raised $35,319 after expenses.  According to its disclosures, the MCC had $323,766 in gross receipts from 2018 to 2022, with 93.5% of its support from the public.

Wednesday’s trial wasn’t without moments of humor.  At one point Judge Mori asked who was on the MCC board, “a bunch of whack-a-doos?”  And at two separate times during the proceeding Attorney Walsh said he knew the case was weak but nevertheless it was his right to argue before a jury, even if he’d be doing it “without pants on.”

In the end, Judge Mori lamented the outcome and laid responsibility for his ruling squarely at the MCC’s feet, saying their actions reminded him of Don Quixote, the character in a 17th-century novel about a lunatic chasing grand fantasy. The loser in this story, however, is a local community and the wishes of a 1970s donor from Essex.

“The spirit of Mr. and Mrs. Means has not been honored by this (MCC) board,” Judge Mori said in his decision.  “And it has not served the community well.”

On Monday, the MCC filed an appeal to Judge Mori’s ruling.   It’s unclear what impact the ruling will have on its $1.2 million countersuit.

NOTE: the Manchester Cricket has sponsored MCC events, including its annual golf tournament.