2016-06-09 / Front Page

Downtown group mulls free Wi-Fi

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Downtown Development Commission logged in a discussion on possibilities for free public Wi-Fi hotspots to be available at select locations downtown. At the Monday, June 6 meeting the commission also accounted for how to spend the remainder of its 2015-16 budget.

Commission Chairman Bill Durkin said the commission’s remaining uncommitted funds totaled $2,820. Durkin said he asked Police Sgt. Steven Gorton and Public Works Director Guy Casavant if they had unfunded wish lists for downtown in their departments.

Durkin said Gorton responded that lights and tire tubes were needed for the police bicycle patrol, and Casavant needed dome trashcan lids.

“They said dome trashcan lids because right now there aren’t any trashcan lids. When the rain comes, it makes the bag heavy,” Durkin said.

The commission took up other possible uses for the remaining funds such as brackets for hanging planters, a “Welcome to Biddeford” banner, or filling and distributing planters that Heart of Biddeford isn’t using this year.

The city bought 25 planters for the downtown revitalization organization, which uses them for a downtown beautification program where businesses pay $75 for a plant container to be placed near it.

Commissioner Martine Eon said there were fewer planters on sidewalks this year because fewer businesses paid for the frontage beautification.

Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore said several businesses on Main Street did not purchase planters this year because of impending sidewalk construction. Poupore said there are three to five planters not being used.

“If (Heart of Biddeford has) some leftover and they’re not going to be used, can we take some of the money and put them strategically around town?” asked Commissioner Grady Sexton.

“There are certainly some entrances to parking lots, empty lots, definitely some places we could dress up,” said Commissioner Julian Schlaver.

Schlaver said the planters should be placed on public properties and not in front of businesses that did not participate in Heart of Biddeford’s program, or the city would appear to be “subsidizing” beautification for some businesses while others paid.

The commission opted not to purchase hanging planter brackets at a cost of $280 to $350 each.

“There are a couple spots along Main Street that could probably use some flowers, but when we first talked about (hanging plants), it was based on our existing streetscape,” Schlaver said. “A lot of (sidewalk and street improvement) proposals have landscaping. When you put a hanging planter next to a plant that’s on the sidewalk, it’s just going to be overkill. We should target them for areas that haven’t had upgraded sidewalks.”

While discussing the allocation of remaining funds, commissioners explored what role they wanted the commission to play in the city.

“It’s all up for discussion. We’re not in quote, ‘business’ for donating to nonprofits,” Durkin said.

“I think we’re transitioning to a new focus, less focused on events and more focused on things that are going to keep people here and keep them coming back,” Schlaver said.

“We need more of a focus on infrastructure and policy and kind of getting back to the roots of what the charter says,” Eon added.

The suggestion to spend $550 for lights and tires for the police department was met with resistance by some commissioners.

“I guess it depends on how it’s framed,” Eon said to Durkin. “If you asked for a wish list, then it’s like ‘Oh yeah? You got money?’ … The chief doesn’t have any other monies? I mean, that’s chump change (in the police department budget).”

“The businesses do request service from the police department. We’re aiding them in doing something we’ve always been asking them to do,” Sexton said. “I think it’s a great idea, but I have to agree with you, Martine – it should be in the (police) budget.”

“When they have brand new Explorers on the road … they have a lot of money in their budget,” Eon said. “Let’s not make it an annual thing.”

“I would love to see something we could point to as a little bit more of an accomplishment than giving money to someone,” Schlaver said. “Use the unused planters. I know that idea is much lamer than giving to the police, but doing something with the park, adding some extra trees – anything that’s more like, ‘Look what we did.’”

Commissioner Spiros Droggitis asked, “How many bicycle guys are there?

“I don’t see much presence to be honest. I’m just curious because I would like to see greater police presence and if this is their excuse, that they don’t have air in their tires, well …”

Ward 5 City Councilor Bob Mills, who is also a commissioner, said he has seen one bicycle patrolman. Schlaver said he sees a bicycle patrol at least weekly. Suger, a clothing store Schlaver owns with his wife, Roxi Suger, is located on Alfred Street next to the police station.

John Bubier, former city manager who provides staff support to the commission, and special projects coordinator for the economic development department, said he believes the department has three bicycle patrol shifts that rotate with vehicle shifts on bad weather days.

The commission voted unanimously to award $550 to the police department.

Commissioners also discussed who would water and maintain the flowers and plants that would be distributed – the department or Heart of Biddeford?

“We need to get careful about overextending ourselves with things that should be part of public works,” Schlaver said. “I’m happy to put the budget into plants and containers, brackets and all that, but it’s ridiculous to think we should take on all of it when there’s a city that has all the equipment to do that. Certainly there are parts of the city that get watered.”

The commission voted unanimously to spend whatever amount was needed of the remaining $2,270 to distribute the unused planters downtown and purchase trashcan lids for the public works department.

“I hate to use the words, ‘Have to get rid of the money,’ I would prefer to give it back (to the city),” Sexton said.

Durkin said unspent money doesn’t roll over into the next year’s budget and if the money isn’t spent, it becomes the basis for the city council to apportion a smaller budget to the commission the next year.

Brian Keely, a former commission chairman, said he met with state Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford) and Fletcher Kittredge, founder and CEO of GWI, a Biddefordbased phone and internet service provider, to discuss the possibilities of Wi-Fi.

Keely said Kittredge had more questions than answers and would need to know more about the scope of what the city wanted to provide before estimating costs.

“I said I want a tourist or visitor to walk to a table and be able to use the Wi-Fi if they need it, a little extra thing,” Keely said. “Welcome to downtown Biddeford.”

Keely said Kittredge advised the commission to explore piggy-backing with free Wi-Fi services offered at MacArthur Public Library and city hall.

Kittredge told the Courier specifics such as where Wi-Fi could be located, how long users could access it for and what results the city is looking for are factors that would affect how to implement free Wi-Fi service.

“I told them they needed to figure out what their goals are. That’s the most important part, and from that, a good technical solution would flow,” Kittredge said. “Until we know, we can’t really speak to what the solutions are … Part of it is making a fundamental decision – why are we having hotspots? Are we trying to attract people downtown? Trying to provide a service to people already there?

“I suspect the goal is to attract. When they get there, will they stay longer? Who are we trying to attract? How long will they stay?

“All I gave them is a set of questions. It’s like saying, ‘I want a vehicle, how much will it cost?’ Do you want to commute to Brunswick every day? Or use it to take the trash to the dump?”

Keely said the cost of service could be anywhere from $50 to $200 a month. Costs to build the hotspots would depend on whether tables, benches or charging stations were installed.

“I would suggest not to make people too comfortable, but it’s up to you,” Keely said.

“If they decided they wanted to just do the parks, that’s easy – easy to understand, easy to implement,” Kittredge said.

Kittredge said the most experience GWI has in working with municipalities is implementing service at transportation hubs such as train stations and ferry terminals.

“You have to be there early and you have to wait,” he said. “If you miss the boat, you miss the boat and usually it’s a big deal if you miss the boat.”

Extending the service from city hall would be favorable over building a new system, Kittredge said.

“You would connect the fiber at city hall to the park and put up more antennas in the park,” he said. “You’d use the same signup process, but you’d be asking city IT staff to help administer the network and it will cause extra work.”

Commissioners discussed whether the service would be tailored to tourists, residents or both.

“As it relates to creating a better environment for people of lower income or who are transitioning, and as far as tourists, I think it’s a great thing,” Schlaver said. “It shows that we’re modern and you can stop and find restaurants, but for people who are low-income, they have to go to the library and there are only certain hours. Is there a way to allow them to pick up that service if it’s implemented?

“If it can keep people happy for an hour or two, it’s a good thing. There’s part of our populace that potentially would want to see that, and use it for more than an hour or two.”

Bubier asked, “When does it transition into a competitive situation for the amount of personal use other than (for a tourist) to find a restaurant or day activity?”

Keely said the system could be programmed to only allow 30 minutes of use once a day per device.

“Most places I’ve traveled to (with hotspot areas) don’t have seating areas. They don’t want people hanging around,” Keely added.

Sexton said there may be concerns about residents logging into the Wi-Fi.

“It happens anyway,” Keely said. “People sit outside the library right now.”

“To some extent, what you’re talking about is what most of the airports are currently using. It’s a model to use, but you got issues where you got to protect it from the elements.

“I think it does have a good use in the community, especially if you’re trying to attract millenials,” Bubier said.

“We’re talking about something which is a business idea, so to speak, but on the other hand, we’re talking about something that’s a human services idea. How to present it to the city council? In one way, it’s a business development tool, but a byproduct, which is somewhat more valuable, is that people who don’t have access to internet could use it,” he added.

Durkin said the commission should work with Economic and Community Development Director Daniel Stevenson to explore possible funding sources, such as TIF money.

Kittredge said if the commission gets specific about what it wants to offer, free Wi-Fi service could be provided with minimal costs.

“If you’re a good Yankee about it, meaning that you’re clever and frugal, you can do it pretty cheaply,” Kittredge said. “But technology always changes. You need to keep that in mind when coming up with a scheme.”

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