Bidder, bank at odds over Four Columns' fate
NEWFANE -- Tony Amato had hoped that he would soon be handed the keys to a Newfane landmark.
Instead, the Maryland man took a substantial sum of cash and left Vermont frustrated this week, angry that his planned purchase of the shuttered Four Columns Inn had fallen through.
Amato contends Peoples United Bank, which purchased the property at auction last month, "stonewalled" him and behaved in a way that "defies logic" just as the deal was about to be sealed.
"We're the only people who were looking at buying that property. We'd done everything," Amato said of himself and his wife, Jill. "Now, they're starting from scratch."
But Peoples United administrators dispute that, with an executive saying Wednesday that the bank had made an "extraordinarily fair" offer and now will put the inn on the market.
"We see it as the community sees it -- as a very vital, important asset in the community," said Michael Seaver, the bank's Vermont president. "We want to find a new owner for that as soon as possible so that it can be reopened."
The Four Columns was constructed in 1832. The West Street property, which includes a main building, a reception/restaurant building and a residence/office, last was operated by Bruce and Debbie Pfander.
But the Pfanders, who bought the property in 2004, closed the inn earlier this year. And Peoples United, which had held the Pfanders' mortgage, foreclosed and scheduled a public auction in October.
At that auction, Peoples United was the successful bidder with an $850,000 offer. While administrators of the Bridgeport, Conn.-based bank did not comment at the time, the auctioneer said such a move often is made to wrap up foreclosure proceedings and prepare a property for sale to a new owner.
Amato -- who resides in the Washington, D.C. area -- was a bidder at the auction and left disappointed, but he had vowed to work with the bank in order to pursue purchase of the inn.
Amato and his wife wanted to own and operate the Four Columns. The couple had a contract to buy the property from the previous owners earlier this year, but that deal did not come to fruition.
After the October auction, "I pursued it, because this was our dream, and this was something we worked so hard at," Amato said.
Amato said he worked with Brattleboro Savings & Loan -- he had high praise for the Main Street-based bank -- throughout October to put together a financing package to purchase the Four Columns for $925,000.
The deal was nearly done when, according to Amato, Peoples United unexpectedly set a Nov. 1 deadline for Amato to have all insurance in place and to assume all liabilities for the property -- even before the formal closing.
When he objected, the bank offered an extension of several days. But "that was not enough time," Amato said, noting that he needed an assessment of the property to meet federal flood-insurance regulations.
The bank "set demands that were absolutely unrealistic, impossible and couldn't be achieved," Amato said.
"The bank would not give us any extension. They would not work with us," he added. "They're imposing on us the liability, but they're not giving us an opportunity to buy the proper insurance policies for those liabilities. And if I don't have my insurance policies, I don't get my loan."
Amato said he had been willing to take on full responsibility for the property's issues and encumbrances, including septic problems and delinquent taxes.
Instead, he returned to Vermont this week and then left with hundreds of thousands of dollars "that would have been invested in that property."
"There's been so much misrepresentation about this property, it's been stunning," Amato told the Reformer as he drove home to Maryland.
He also believes Peoples United now is left with a "depreciating asset" that will grow less marketable due to neglect and a sour economy.
"My question is, what the hell do they want that property for?" Amato asked.
Seaver contends Peoples United, in fact, has no interest in hanging onto the Four Columns for very long.
While saying he could not get into details of the bank's talks with Amato, Seaver characterized those negotiations as "very lengthy."
"The decision to not go forward is his decision," Seaver said. "We felt that the price was extraordinarily fair."
Seaver did not confirm Amato's price, but he also indicated that timing was a factor.
"We said, ‘If you can do it quickly, then we will not bring other parties in,'" he said.
But with a deal not yet done, "why should we not expose it to other parties?" he asked.
Though there is not yet a public sale listing for the Four Columns, Seaver said Peoples United intends to "expose it to the market."
"We think there are people who will see it as a real gem," he said.
And, in spite of the parties' clear differences -- on Wednesday, Peoples United contended Amato never even submitted a bid at last month's auction -- Seaver said the bank has not ruled out any potential buyers.
"We have not told Mr. Amato that we will not sell him this," Seaver said. "If he is still interested in the property, then he can pursue a purchase."
Amato says that's highly unlikely.
He said he already has spent approximately $40,000 in his unsuccessful pursuit of the Four Columns. Costs have included inspections, incorporation, legal fees and travel.
"People don't spend $40,000 of their life savings to try and buy a property just for fun," Amato said. "This has been really painful for us -- not just financially, but emotionally."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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