2016-10-13 / Front Page

Pepperell Square

Business owners react to possible closure to traffic
By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

Johanna Hoffman, manager of Saco Frame Center, speaks to attendees at a meeting for business operators in Pepperell Square. The city has discussed closing the square to vehicle traffic and meetings between city officials and the business owners are planned to address concerns. (Anthony Aloisio photo) Johanna Hoffman, manager of Saco Frame Center, speaks to attendees at a meeting for business operators in Pepperell Square. The city has discussed closing the square to vehicle traffic and meetings between city officials and the business owners are planned to address concerns. (Anthony Aloisio photo) SACO – Since at least April, the city has been exploring the possibility of closing Pepperell Square to general vehicle traffic. The idea first appeared on a city council agenda at the Sept. 22 Traffic Safety Commission meeting.

“My notification was through someone letting me know that this was on the agenda,” said Johanna Hoffman, manager of Saco Frame Center. “The official notification went out the day before (the meeting), and many folks got it two days after.”

At an informal meeting of Pepperell Square business owners, held Thursday Oct. 6, the lack of notice was a primary concern.

In a letter addressed to business owners, City Administrator Kevin Sutherland apologized for the lack of communication, and said that the community’s input was essential.

“No final decisions were made, nor would they be without consulting and engaging the property and business owners who live, work or own property in and around Pepperrell Square,” the letter read.

Sutherland’s letter further offered interested parties to attend a community meeting about the plan at 3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13 in the city hall auditorium. However, that offer still fell short of expectations and meeting attendees were disappointed at the inconvenient hour scheduled.

“I had so many people who said ‘what are you nuts?’” Hoffman said.

“We had people on Facebook commenting about, ‘3 p.m.,’” said John Keegan, owner of Saco Frame Center.

According to a statement on the city administrator’s webpage, the closure to vehicle traffic would aim to improve traffic flow through the city.

“Several traffic studies have been conducted to improve the flow of traffic through out the city of Saco,” the statement reads. “Through these studies, it has been determined that the Pepperrell Square and Main Street intersection is not optimally moving traffic.”

The discussed proposal would happen in one of two ways, according to a letter sent to City Planner Bob Hamblen from a senior associate at T.Y. Lin International, a global traffic engineering services firm with an office in Falmouth.

“The first is a full closure of the square to general traffic allowing truck deliveries and emergency vehicle access only,” the letter reads. “A second scenario will be evaluated and includes providing entry movements from Main Street only.”

The square closing would allow exceptions for deliveries and emergency vehicles.

Sutherland’s letter said the proposal is only “one of the potential solutions” for improving traffic in the area.

At the business owners’ meeting there were different perspectives on the problems affecting Main Street.

“If you read (the traffic study), there is nothing about the train,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman offered alternate suggestions for improving traffic on Main Street, primarily focusing on reorganizing traffic caused by train crossings.

“My first suggestion is that consideration be given to installing prompt signs up by upper Main Street before people turn off on Route 1 that will be tied in to when the traffic gates come down,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman’s other suggestions included revisiting an old plan to improve traffic on Elm Street, which is part of Route 1.

“There was a zoning change, and they were going to rehabilitate Elm Street, and rehabilitate that lovely intersection at Thornton and Scamman,” Hoffman said. “I’d have them revisit that.”

Hoffman also doubted the idea of orienting traffic movement straight down Main Street, rather than encouraging traffic exposure to storefronts that can be valuable to a business area.

“Aren’t you supposed to want people to slow down?” Hoffman asked.

Hoffman proposed that signs be implemented labeling Main Street as a business district and encouraging through-traffic to take Route 1 instead.

Aside from a decrease in customer exposure, business owners discussed other problems the proposal could cause. Primary among those problems was the difficulty it would cause customers for moving goods.

“Having access to loading and off-loading via the square is imperative to the success of our business,” Hoffman said.

Although the proposal would allow for truck deliveries, it is not clear that it covers the needs of businesses. Saco Frame Center, according to Hoffman, relies on the ability of customers to move frames and other items to and from the business space.

Difficulty of truck deliveries was another concern. The proposal in the form presented to the Traffic Safety Commission would restrict truck deliveries to certain early morning hours.

“That wouldn’t work,” said Stacy Hill of Saco House of Pizza. “Our deliveries . . . show up sporadically.”

Suspicion and lack of trust appeared often at the Pepperell Square meeting. One attendee explicitly opined that the faults in the city’s notice and process were the cause of those feelings.

“When you don’t ask people for input, and give them time, and have transparency, and build trust, things don’t work,” said Rand Clark, of Maine Insurance Benefits Group. “And, this isn’t a perfect plan, but even if it was, the way that they’ve approached it, it’s sort of asked for a fight.”

Regarding lack of transparency, Hoffman pointed out that the published letter from T.Y. Lin International had had five pages deleted from it, as apparent from the pagination. The city provided the Courier with a complete copy of the letter; the five deleted pages contain the fee estimate for T.Y. Lin – a lump sum of $10,600 – and the contract provisions of the traffic engineering services agreement.

Meeting attendees also took the opportunity to criticize the more general economic development visions of the city. The parking issue around the proposed redevelopment of the Notre Dame de Lourdes church was brought up.

“They’re hoping that, it’s the millennials and they use Uber, and take public transportation, which we don’t have,” Hoffman said.

“This is Saco,” said Mark Hill, of Saco House of Pizza.

The Courier continues its report on the church redevelopment on page 1.

Attendees also voiced suspicion centered around development on Saco Island.

“I think they’re willing to sacrifice us so they can accomplish their goals later on,” said Don Camire, owner of Rapid Ray’s.

Other attendees shared that idea but asked not to be named.

Kevin Sutherland spoke with the Courier about the square.

“The city doesn’t have definite commitments to Saco Island,” Sutherland said. “The city has issues with traffic in the city, which is one of the biggest concerns that many constituents tell our elected officials about.”

“It’s one of the goals of 2016 for the council to look at our traffic issues,” Sutherland added. “This is much broader than just Pepperell Square.”

Bill Mann, Saco’s economic development director, agreed with Sutherland.

“We’re trying to improve all things in the downtown, of which Saco Island is a part, and Pepperell Square is a part,” Mann said. “We’re not looking at a specific project, one or the other.”

Sutherland also said he is working with the railroad to make changes in the track operation as part of that effort.

“The Downeaster stops to drop off and pick up passengers,” Sutherland said. “The gates off of Route 9 do not go back up while the train is just sitting there, they stay down. If we can set it up so that the gates go up at that time, that can move some more traffic.”

Sutherland affirmed that the lack of discussion of the train was a failure of communication.

“That’s something I need to work on going forward,” Sutherland said.

Since last week, Sutherland has published a memorandum to the Mayor and City council stating that the updates he frequently sends to the council will now be made public.

At the Pepperell Square meeting, a conciliatory tone was offered by Tony Payne of Clark Insurance.

“I think it might be useful if this group collectively say . . . ‘we’re going to help dictate the schedule, we’re not coming to the table with an agenda other than to understand’ and to be able to say ‘this is the impact of what we understand at this point,’” Payne said. “I think you’d be able to move a lot further faster, and also help guide them through the process as opposed to being led.”

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