2016-05-05 / Front Page

Organizations defend budget increases

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO – After a decade of working to improve the cities’ downtowns, the downtown revitalization organizations of Biddeford and Saco are seeking increased allocations from their respective cities. The executive directors of the two organizations – Heart of Biddeford and Saco Main Street – say the cities’ investments in their downtown areas are paying off.

The groups are two of 10 Main Street Maine organizations in the state, designated by the Maine Development Foundation, a private organization that aims to create sustainable economic development in communities. The Main Street Maine program provides downtown revitalization groups with technical assistance, training and networking opportunities.

The most recent municipality to receive the the designation in Maine is Augusta Downtown Alliance, named a Main Street Maine program in 2013.

Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore said the city has seen a shift in the public perception of Biddeford’s downtown during the last decade.

“A cultural shift is happening where people have become more engaged. People have become much more likely to get involved in positive activities, coming to events, being on committees, recruiting new businesses, dealing with parking issues,” Poupore said. “As they become more involved, they become bigger supporters of the city. Ten years ago, if you Googled ‘Biddeford downtown,’ you might only get negative articles about the tough stuff going on.

“Now, we have one of the top 50 restaurants in the country with Palace Diner, or Maine’s favorite coffee shop in Elements, adding that positive buzz. It has really shifted the perception of Biddeford as a place to come do business. It’s a cultural shift of how Biddeford is viewed.”

Saco Development Director William Mann, who is also on the board of directors for Saco Main Street, said Heart of Biddeford has helped create that positive image for Biddeford.

“I was immediately embraced by Heart of Biddeford when I got here,” said Mann, who started working for the city in December, 2014. “They have done a tremendous job. Positivity begets further positivity. As positive attitude and aptitude is created, it brings a can-do environment. I think our colleagues on the other side of the river have had great success in that. As more developers become engaged with Heart of Biddeford, it’s that building and reinforcing positive energy that will help lift the community.”

Poupore said Heart of Biddeford has asked the city for $30,000 in next year’s budget – a $10,000 increase from the allocation it received this year. According to Biddeford Finance Director Michael Wilson, Heart of Biddeford received $17,000 from the city in 2009, and $20,000 each year from 2010 to 2016. Poupore said past dispersals from the city were general allocations to help the organization with its operating costs and were not targeted for specific programs.

In addition to the allocation, Poupore said the city also provides office space on Main Street free of charge. Poupore said Curt Koehler, the former finance director in Biddeford, had valued the space as a $6,000 per year in-kind contribution.

“We’ve been very cautious not to ask for more every year because of the budget crunch everyone is under,” Poupore said. “We decided to ask for $30,000 this year, understanding that if they couldn’t do it, they wouldn’t.”

Poupore said that among the 10 Main Street Maine organizations, Heart of Biddeford has the smallest percentage of its overall budget funded by the municipality – 16 percent. Waterville Main Street, she said, receives more than 32 percent of its budget, or $40,000, from the city of Waterville. Rockland Main Street receives $30,000 from the city of Rockland – 34 percent of its budget.

Of the 10 Main Street organizations statewide, Poupore said Heart of Biddeford also receives the smallest allocation overall from a municipality. Downtown revitalization groups in Belfast and Augusta receive the next smallest allocations of $25,000 each from their respective municipalities.

At an April 11 workshop meeting of the Saco City Council, Saco Main Street Executive Director Rob Biggs made a case for an $8,000 increase in next year’s budget.

“My argument is that you have seen results before and will see significant results in the future,” Biggs said.

According to Saco Finance Director Cheryl Fournier, Saco Main Street, previously named Saco Spirit, received $25,000 from the city in each year from 2004 to 2012, and $38,600 each year from 2013 to 2016, as a general allocation toward the group’s operating expenses. Biggs declined disclosing his salary. Since the organization is nonprofit and not a public entity, his salary isn’t considered public information.

This year, the group is asking the city for $46,600.

Biggs explained to the council that $5,000 of the additional $8,000 requested would go toward RiverJam festival costs, and $3,000 would match a grant to place flags along Main Street in Saco.

Saco Ward 4 City Councilor Roger Gay asked Biggs at the April meeting about his request to fund RiverJam, “Where will the money come from in the future?”

“(RiverJam) should be a free event,” Biggs said. “We will get sponsorship in the future after they see the proof in the pudding. The idea is to invest a little now, increase the energy as it takes off, and then everyone will want to be a part of it.”

Poupore said Heart of Biddeford’s proposal for a $30,000 allocation includes a $5,000 request specifically for RiverJam. However, Poupore said Mayor Alan Casavant has discussed the possibility of increasing the city’s commitment toward RiverJam to $10,000.

Biggs told the Saco City Council the extra money could be used to help fund fireworks during RiverJam.

“We want to create an event that everyone in southeastern Maine will want to come to in September,” Biggs said, “much like Prelude in Kennebunkport or the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest.”

Biggs said the money to match a grant to place flags downtown would fund placing a flag on every lamppost from Saco Island to Thornton Academy.

“So people driving through will say, ‘What has changed here? It’s definitely different.’”

Among other projects Saco Main Street is working on, Biggs said, is starting a weekly Thursday concert series, placing 35 Adirondack chairs throughout downtown, rehabbing Jubilee and Riverfront parks and installing more wayfinding signs downtown.

“Main Street doesn’t end at Pepperell Square,” he added. “It goes to the island.”

Biggs said part of Saco Main Street’s efforts to improve downtown this year will be to rebuild a significant volunteer pool for the organization.

Poupore said the ability of the nonprofits to recruit, orient and appreciate volunteers who help with downtown projects is something that distinguishes the groups from city departments.

“A huge part of our work gets done without staff time,” Poupore said. “To organize 3,000 hours (per year) of volunteers time isn’t easy.”

Poupore said Heart of Biddeford has increased volunteerism in the city by 1,000 hours per year in the last three years. The group enlisted an AmeriCorps Vista member this year to assist in organizing volunteers.

Poupore said grants Heart of Biddeford receives also help the city.

Poupore said Heart of Biddeford’s overall budget, not including in-kind contributions, has increased from $60,000 a year for its first five years, to $90,000 a year and then, for the last three, $120,000 a year. According to the Maine Development Foundation’s website, an adequate amount for a Main Street organization to achieve its goals in a community of 5,000 to 50,000 people is $60,000 or more.

“The big increase really is from grants,” she said. “Most Main Street programs haven’t leveraged grants.”

Poupore said once Heart of Biddeford received a $100,000 grant from the Orton Family Foundation in 2008, for land use planning and resident engagement, the group’s reputation was viewed favorably by other granting institutions.

“We became positively viewed by foundations in the state and region,” Poupore said, “and quite a few of (the grants received after) were for operating expenses.”

Poupore said the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation has twice given the group $20,000 or more to help with operating expenses, which include utilities and salaries for Heart of Biddeford’s 1.5 staff positions. Poupore’s salary is $45,000.

Poupore said the value of the volunteer hours the organization leverages each year is nearly $60,000. Poupore said Heart of Biddeford places a value of $17 for each volunteer hour, as an in-kind contribution, although some groups use values of $22 or $23 per hour. According to Independent Sector, a national organization that works to help and strengthen nonprofits, the value of a volunteer hour in Maine in 2015 was $21.31.

“Can you possibly imagine a city department having a whole budget of $30,000, employing one and a half staff persons, an AmeriCorps Vista person, holding two Maine Street Challenge contests, putting in downtown planters, that organizes and runs free events, coordinates major events, is a one-stop shop for business startups, can leverage grants averaging $36,000 a year and generally keep grassroots downtown revitalization going for a year?” Poupore said, highlighting the value the city gets for its financial contribution.

Mann said Saco Main Street also benefits the city in that it can compile information and input from property owners, businesses and resident.

“What they can do as a 501c3 which we as a municipality cannot do – they can do surveys,” Mann said. “What are the rental rates on this block? Are people getting X dollars per square foot? What are apartments renting for? If (the city was) doing this, people would be reluctant because what they answer could become a public record.

“The compiling, having Saco Main Street do that, is a great service to the city. From my view, that is where some of the value comes in. They can build those relationships. It can only have a positive impact on the community if you got a very engaged downtown organization actively seeking to work with property owners and businesses to have spaces occupied.”

Biggs said there are only five first-floor commercial spaces in downtown Saco that are vacant now, and not all of them are listed on the market for lease.

Poupore said the Biddeford City Council passed a resolution in 2006 agreeing to enter an ongoing privatepublic partnership of support with Heart of Biddeford. Poupore said the general rule of thumb for most Main Street organizations is to have one-third of their budget supported by the municipality. However, Poupore said Heart of Biddeford’s ability to access grants has reduced the group’s dependence on the city for financial support.

“There is no set amount that Biddeford has agreed to (support Heart of Biddeford),” Poupore said. “We don’t feel like there’s any going back on, the city has not gone back on an agreement.”

Lorain Francis, senior program director at Maine Development Foundation, said downtown revitalization groups are expected to get a three-year funding commitment from the municipality before being recognized as a Main Street organization. Francis said all 10 Main Street groups in the state have received continuing support from their municipalities beyond the initial three-year commitments.

“Results, they’ve all had results,” said Francis. “All 10 of our communities have had amazing results in creating an atmosphere so entrepreneurs and new businesses want to come in and create jobs. Investors want to come in because they know people are looking out for them. It gets people excited about shopping locally.”

Poupore said the Lincoln Mill project is the product of a decade of efforts in the city to revitalize downtown.

“I have had zero to do with directly facilitating that process, but if the work of Heart of Biddeford ... hadn’t happened, if Doug Sanford hadn’t developed Pepperell Mill, would Lincoln Mill have ever happened? No. Those entities that put downtown on the map make development with these large entities possible.”

Mann said the presence of the downtown organizations and their ability to collaborate with each other has played a role in attracting more than $100 million worth of development projects in the two cities in recent years.

“They are promoting community, working with businesses and property owners, attracting people to come to the community,” Mann said. “They are letting folks know beyond our borders that there are a lot of things to do here … The investment we put into downtown organizations is relatively modest in terms of the response we get. They bring literally thousands of people to these communities each and every year, an external attraction that has an economic value component for a relatively modest investment.”

Mann said the Biddeford Ball, an annual charity event spearheaded by the owners of Angelrox, a local clothing manufacturer, will be held in Saco this year, in Mill No. 4. The building is being redeveloped into apartments and commercial space by Chinburg Properties. Mann said the fact that the Biddeford Ball will be held in Saco this year is proof that many people think of the two cities as being one community.

“If you look from the air, it’s one town,” Biggs said. “We each do have to keep our own name and identity and focus, but a rising tide floats all ships. The better we do, the better they do, the better we all do … As I’ve said to many people, the Battle of the Bridge is over – Biddeford changed football divisions – we can be friends again.”

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