New London — The Lighthouse Inn has been closed since 2008, but since then at least one visitor has helped himself to a box of teabags and biscuits, and has roughed up the fake Christmas tree in the center of the dining room.
Officials think a raccoon found its way inside the once grand hotel and restaurant, which — as of Tuesday — the city now owns.
During a tour of the three-story inn off Pequot Avenue Tuesday, paw prints clearly were visible on the dining tables. Broken glass, Christmas ornaments and various other yule-time decorations were strewn about the main dining room. In a smaller room, a table was set for two, complete with a small gift-wrapped package on one of the plates.
"It looks like it was set up for business and then didn't open,'' said Tammy Daugherty, the city's director of development and planning.
On the second and third floors, the 51 guest rooms were in varying states of disrepair. In some, remote controls for long-gone televisions sat on what looked like freshly made beds and a coffeemaker waited on a side table, ready to be plugged in. In others, water had seeped through ceilings, leaving stains on linens.
Now that the city owns the 8-acre property — including two out buildings, the Carriage House and a salon/spa — the first order of business is cutting the grass and securing the building against animals and the elements, according to Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.
After no one bid on the historic building during a tax sale in July, Finizio and Tax Collector Maureen Farrell recorded the deed at City Hall Tuesday.
"If you walk into the building, it looks to the untrained eye like it closed six months ago,'' said Finizio, describing the 32,000-square-foot hotel and restaurant. "There's work to be done, but it's a very sound building.''
In July, the city put the property up for auction with a minimum bid of $577,000 to recoup unpaid taxes and fees. There were no bidders.
In addition to landscapers, contractors will be hired to clean the main floor and basement, to prepare the building to be viewed by potential buyers. The cost is expected to be about $150,000. The mayor called the maintenance and clean-up minimal. He estimated it would take $1.8 million to $2.5 million to get the business up and running again.
The mayor is working with the city's law director and the City Council to establish an abatement deal to attract a buyer. On Tuesday, Finizio said he was proposing a 15-year plan that would abate all taxes for the first five years and 50 percent of the taxes for the second five years. The owner would pay full taxes for the final five years unless the property is sold before the 15 years are up. In that case, the owner would be responsible for all the taxes.
Once secured and cleaned, the property will be sold at public auction for not less than about $500,000, which would include the nearly $400,000 in unpaid taxes and the maintenance costs, Finizio said.
"Basically, this deal will save the Lighthouse Inn,'' he said. "Too often, we've seen gorgeous buildings in this community torn down, and a historic treasure is gone."
Daugherty said the plan is to put together a package for potential buyers that will include the abatement plan, deed restrictions and qualifications for potential developers.
The building will be available for group tours, possibly by October, she said.
Connecticut State Marshal Joseph Heap said there also will be an auction to sell off the contents of the buildings, including restaurant equipment and bedroom furniture.
The Lighthouse Inn was built in 1906 as a summer residence for the family of steel baron Charles Strong Guthrie. It was converted to an inn around 1928.
July's auction was the Lighthouse Inn's third in the past four years.
The Business Loan Center, which took over ownership of the historic inn after McGrath Hotels LLC defaulted on its mortgage, told the city that it had decided to walk away from the property and let it be auctioned at a tax sale.
Last year, the Business Loan Center held an online auction of the property but no bids met the minimum price, which the auctioneer declined to specify.
Former Lighthouse Inn operator Maureen Clark is serving more than seven years in federal prison for investment fraud. According to the government, Clark and her business partner, Christopher Plummer, defrauded investors of $1.7 million in a resort investment scheme in Mississippi, spending the money on the failing Lighthouse Inn and on themselves. Plummer pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to serve just over four years in prison.