2016-04-21 / Front Page

Does new task force mirror existing group?

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – An informal mayoral task force has been meeting for several months to discuss how to coordinate moving downtown forward. Mayor Alan Casavant said the committee consists of three city councilors and is chaired by himself.

The council members are Ward 2 City Councilor John McCurry, Ward 7 City Councilor Michael Ready and Councilor at large Marc Lessard.

City staff have also attended the task force meetings, including City Manager James Bennett, Director of Code Enforcement Roby Fecteau and Brad Favreau, an economic development and planning analyst for the city.

The council formed an ad hoc downtown policy and management committee Jan. 20, 2015, that includes councilors McCurry, Ready, Lessard and Ward 5 City Councilor Bob Mills. Council minutes and documents do not reflect what the stated purpose of that committee was, but Casavant said the group that has been meeting for the last three months is different than the ad hoc committee formed last year.

The newest task force was not confirmed by the city council and its formation is not documented in council minutes.

“The objective is to submit policies and recommendations that are needed to bring downtown to the next level … With downtown changing so radically, we want to make sure we can switch the paradigm,” Casavant said.

Although the Downtown Development Commission already exists, Casavant said it focuses more on downtown events and activities than policy and zoning changes, contracting the commission’s mission statement and description in the city charter. Casavant said the downtown task force would like to form a larger resident committee that includes representation from a cross-section of interests, including the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Downtown Development Commission and Heart of Biddeford.

“We want to take on everything from parking to building facades, zoning changes and amenities,” Casavant said. “We want to cultivate an ambience – we got to make it appealing and how to make the public know it’s safe.”

Bill Durkin, chairman of the Downtown Development Commission, said he and commission Vice Chairman Julian Schlaver began attending meetings when they found out about the task force.

“They want to create a new committee to look at zoning, development, policy, to look at all these things,” Durkin said, “and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Well that’s what DDC does.’ We’re all appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.”

Durkin said the Downtown Development Commission was not established to be an events board, but rather, to address the same issues Casavant identified as the purpose of the mayoral downtown task force – including reviewing downtown ordinances and recommending revisions to the policy committee.

“See, what has happened is, we did events for years. We did the Christmas

The DDC, according to city ordinance

1) Encourage and promote the expansion and development of existing commercial firms downtown and to promote and encourage the location of new commercial firms downtown.

2) Through the Economic Development Office, establish and maintain files of data and information of interest and assistance for downtown publicity and marketing.

3) Review downtown ordinances and recommend revisions to the Policy Committee.

4) Serve as coordinator for such boards, merchant groups, commissions and City departments as shall be established from time to time to study matters relating to downtown parking, traffic circulation, historic districts, land use, public utilities, landscape, streetscape and a downtown comprehensive plan; hold downtown promotions and events; and promote and implement downtown beautification and cleanup projects.

5) Work with the Economic Development Office to gather, correlate and preserve records, statistics, surveys and other data relating to downtown land classifications and uses, buildings, commercial firms, labor, and such matters that will enable it to carry out its functions and purposes.

6) Perform such other functions as may be required or delegated by the Mayor and City Council. thing, Festival of Lights, but we handed that over to Heart of Biddeford because we realized we aren’t in the events business,” Durkin said. “There are a few events that we sponsor and get involved with but that’s not what we’re all about. We want to sink our teeth into it, whether it’s policy or creating infrastructure.

“So we’re not really all just events because that’s not what we’re supposed to be all about. If we can help bring in any businesses, help them get settled in or look at policy and zoning, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Durkin said the Downtown Development Commission has been reviewing how sidewalk construction scheduled to happen this year will affect downtown businesses, and addressing public concerns about security and safety.

Lessard said by meeting regularly as a downtown task force, councilors can discuss how to better coordinate the logistics to improve downtown.

“Our directive is to keep momentum in the city. What it boils down to is we all have day jobs, there’s only so much time that we can devote to doing things on a day-to-day basis,” Lessard said, “but by meeting frequently, we have the ability to make sure the staff continues to work on projects. The outcome is better for citizens if a project doesn’t take a year to figure out. It’s about getting things done quicker, being more efficient and decreasing the runways.”

The mayor’s task force has been meeting every one or two weeks on Fridays at 8 a.m. in Casavant’s office while the Downtown Development Commission meets monthly.

Lessard said he hopes the formation of a larger downtown group will eventually help address codes and zoning proposals that will expedite the development of downtown.

“If we can get more people involved and give them specific tasks, we can continue to push things forward,” Lessard said. “It’s simple project management, that’s what it’s about.”

Durkin said part of the Downtown Development Commission’s function, as stated in the city ordinance, is to take directives from the mayor and city council. If the council or mayor directed the commission to pursue changes in policy or zoning, Durkin said the commission could work with city staff to present necessary recommendations to the policy committee or city council.

Lessard said a larger resident group could set up subgroups to delve into specific downtown issues.

“Facades – what buildings should look like. We could have other groups to discuss parking, or street traffic, public safety, funding capacity,” Lessard said. “This is very exciting for the city, allowing us to get more done faster.”

In 2014, the council formed a public safety committee by amending the council rules. According to the Aug. 5, 2014 minutes, the committee was formed “for establishing and recommending ordinance language, code revisions and city policy in matters that relate to public safety.”

The council also formed an ad hoc downtown parking education committee in 2014, to educate the public about the city’s parking plans in advance of a referendum to ban the use of parking meters downtown. The referendum passed, removing the possibility that meters could be used to generate revenue to help pay for a municipal parking garage.

At an April 8 meeting in Casavant’s office, Bennett said the task force may want to do some outreach to the public about downtown as the city formalizes its strategic plan. Lessard suggested that the November election could be an opportunity to survey voters with a questionnaire.

“Are you willing to have your street paved last to save money? Are you willing to have larger class sizes to save money?” Lessard suggested as possible survey question examples.

Durkin said councilors on the task force have discussed forming a type of downtown district that might generate revenue through taxation or fees to pay for downtown services.

“(The downtown task force) just started loosely where they’re getting together and talking about downtown, ways of increasing revenue for more police and infrastructure costs instead of burdening the whole city,” Durkin said. “If they can move this forward and present it to the council a year from now or whatever, I think it’s got a lot of potential.”

The idea of creating a downtown business district was also discussed by the other ad hoc downtown policy and management committee that was formed in 2015.

At a Feb. 27, 2015 meeting of that committee, members discussed how different organizations had different boundaries and definitions of “downtown.”

“The first objective is to come up with a definition of downtown and then start talking about what might be needed,” Casavant had said at that meeting.

Lessard had also said at the February 2015 meeting of the original ad hoc downtown policy and management committee, that he wanted the city to move quickly in creating a defined downtown district.

“Portland has a downtown district that is taxed differently than the rest of the city,” Lessard said in 2015. “Take those dollars and resources and put them back in the district.”

The city council never created a downtown district and the ad hoc downtown policy and management committee didn’t forward any recommendations to the council to do so.

Casavant said the task force has discussed the Downtown Development Commission and whether it should continue in its current form or be replaced with a different organization to assist with development downtown. The Downtown Development Commission has existed as part of the city’s ordinance since the 1970s.

Durkin said dissolving the Downtown Development Commission “makes no sense.” Durkin said he was also “grilled” this year by the budget committee, when members asked him how the commission’s functions differed from the functions of Heart of Biddeford, a downtown development organization that was founded in 2004. Durkin said a municipal commission and a nonprofit organization are two types of groups that each have their own roles.

“That’s the beauty of having a municipal commission as opposed to HOB,” Durkin said. “While they can ask, and work with the city, we’re in a different situation where our demand can have a little more force behind it.”

Durkin said members of the Downtown Development Commission were not informed of or invited to the mayor’s downtown task force meetings, and are mostly unaware of what role the task force is to play in the development of downtown. Durkin said the task force at first did not publicize agendas and does not produce meeting minutes.

Although Durkin said he was “baffled” and “confused” about the purpose of the downtown task force, he has seen from past experience that a task force can help to move plans forward in the city. Durkin said he served on an ad hoc open spaces committee that JoAnne Twomey created when she was mayor. That ad hoc committee, Durkin said, helped to draft an open spaces plan, which the council eventually adopted.

Durkin said it’s possible the downtown task force could expedite changes to policy and zoning, but said the Downtown Development Commission also exists to serve functions as requested by the mayor and council, and could fashion the appropriate recommendations if directed to do so.

Durkin said he is taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the mayor’s news task force.

“It is the prerogative of the mayor to create any ad hoc committee and if that task force creates another subcommittee, then it is still within his duty to do so. When it involves councilors, it does make it interesting. I have zero idea where it is heading.”

Durkin said he hopes the purpose and function of the mayor’s task force will become clearer in the near future.

“We all want Biddeford to be a better place and downtown to be thriving and bring an economy in, and reduce crime, bring in tourists and have clean streets,” Durkin said. “We’re all in the same boat, we all got to work together. We just need to clarify all our positions and roles of what we got to do. Maybe this task force is trying to lead through on a smaller scale, with those who are in command, in power so to speak, to come up with projects they want to get done.”

Casavant said downtown is changing fast and he hopes the downtown task force will be able to help the city, and its various downtown organizations, better facilitate the transition.

“For many years, Biddeford downtown was a destination point,” Casavant said. “We’re getting to that point again.”

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