2016-10-20 / News

Saco staff and community meet about Pepperell Square

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland discussed Pepperell Square and the downtown’s traffic challenges with community members at an Oct. 13 meeting in city hall. Sutherland brought his foster dog, Cato, along with him to the meeting. (Anthony Aloisio photo) Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland discussed Pepperell Square and the downtown’s traffic challenges with community members at an Oct. 13 meeting in city hall. Sutherland brought his foster dog, Cato, along with him to the meeting. (Anthony Aloisio photo) SACO – City staff and members of Saco’s downtown community met to discuss the train, air grievances, and ease some tensions about the possibility of closing Pepperell Square to vehicle traffic. City Administrator Kevin Sutherland reiterated his apology for lack of effective communication on the idea, and, together with Don Girouard, a member of the planning board, shed light on its history and intentions.

As the Courier reported in its Oct. 13 issue, the proposed idea would either eliminate vehicle entry to Main Street from the square, or close the square to vehicle traffic entirely, with exceptions for morning deliveries and emergency vehicles.

Ward 6 Councilor Eric Cote, whose ward covers Pepperell Square and the area east of it, has expressed disagreement with the idea.

“What I think they’re overlooking is that you have neighborhoods back there,” Cote told the Courier in the week before the meeting.

Cote believes that neighborhoods east of the square depend on that intersection to get to Main Street. He added that dealing with trains coming through is the only change he would recommend, and that overall traffic in the city is not bad relative to other cities.

The meeting began with a half-hour slideshow presentation by Sutherland that covered the city staff’s background on the idea. The presentation generally covered theories and examples of downtown revitalization and ideas for applications to the downtown, focusing on changes to traffic. Those included updates to traffic lights on Route 1 and the possibility of a spur route connecting the area to the west of I-95 to the highway. Sutherland said that the slideshow was important context.

“I wanted to talk about the fact that this Pepperell Square plaza concern was a part of a larger traffic management discussion,” Sutherland told the audience.

Girouard illuminated the history of the idea.

“I’m the culprit,” Girouard said. “I brought this idea to the planning board in February.”

According to Girouard, Gorrill Palmer, a traffic engineering firm with an office in South Portland, published a traffic study in June 2015 that recommended taking out the traffic light at the Pepperell Square intersection.

“We actually met with the Biddeford Planning Board that summer,” Girouard said. “The people on the Biddeford Planning Board were saying ‘we’d love to see you getting rid of that light, because it’s obviously effecting everybody who commutes northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon.’”

Girouard said the idea also made sense to him as a way to improve the effectiveness of events put on in the downtown by businesses.

“There was no real focus in the downtown area for those activities,” Girouard said. “There was no destination where they could be held time and again.”

Girouard also took time to assure the community that the adverse effects on business owners had been discussed at that time, and that their well-being was of real concern. “There’s no downtown without you,” Girouard said.

Throughout the meeting many alternative ideas were offered for improving traffic around the downtown. Jeff Brochu, who said he spends a lot of time driving a truck through the downtown for his business, suggested altering the way the traffic lights responded to the train to allow traffic to continue to move elsewhere. Brochu also suggested elimination of left-hand turns.

The most frequent topic of the night was the train and the halting of traffic by the gate at the entrance to Saco Island.

One community member suggested assuring that the gate would come up when the train was stopped would be a benefit to traffic through Main Street. Sutherland agreed, and reiterated that he had been in contact with Amtrak about that specific issue.

Another community member brought up the idea of having prompt signs that would advise drivers when the train was coming through, installed before the intersection with Elm Street so drivers could take that route and avoid the train. The same idea was offered last week by Johanna Hoffman at a meeting of Pepperell Square business owners.

Additionally, Sutherland said part of the discussion with train operators was about reorganizing the train schedules to not coincide with heavy traffic around 5 o’clock.

Sutherland added that that afternoon’s meeting in itself could have an effect on the train.

“This might be the kind of group that, if I can get everyone’s signature on a piece of paper that I can hand to them and say ‘look I have a real issue here’, we’ll have better strength in trying to get those changes made,” Sutherland said.

During the meeting it was pointed out that development on Saco Island could make traffic worse than it is now. Sutherland acknowledged the concern.

“Those are all things that we discuss internally and we discuss with engineers and now, hopefully, with more members of the community,” Sutherland said.

During the meeting it appeared that Pepperell Square business owners were strongly in disagreement with the notion that a closing to vehicle traffic could have benefits for their businesses.

Girouard posed the question.

“The idea of the park in the square came about as, I think, an effort to see if we could pull more people on a walking basis into the downtown area to frequent your businesses and build your business,” Girouard said. “What I’m interesting in hearing is, is the closing of Pepperell Square to traffic not worth it in that regard? In other words, does that not come near compensating the business owners in Pepperell Square?”

Hoffman, manager of Saco Frame Center in the square, called for a show of hands. The business owners clearly expressed that they did not expect the benefits.

“Because we’re destination businesses,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think there’s too many businesses in Pepperell Square that rely heavily on foot traffic.”

After the meeting, Hoffman told the Courier that exposure to vehicle traffic, as distinct from foot traffic, is highly valued.

“I want foot traffic,” Hoffman said. “I just don’t want foot traffic at the loss of my exposure.”

Hoffman also believes the square’s success is in large part because of the mix of destination businesses with foottraffic businesses. She used Rapid Ray’s, a restaurant in the square, as an example.

“If you have the reputation of Rapid Ray’s and people are going to walk around the corner and down the side street to get to you, other businesses benefit from the destination character of that business,” Hoffman said.

“We cross-promote down here in the square,” Hoffman continued. “When (people) visit New Moon, they look across and see (Saco Frame Center).”

At the city hall meeting, business owners also took the opportunity to air out their disappointment in the faulty notice and process that had made the issue so tense.

Fausto Pifferrer, who operates Blue Elephant, pointed out that only the building owners were notified of the potential change.

“That’s the data I have,” Sutherland replied.

“You should have gone door to door,” Pifferrer said in response. “You should know all of us in this room.”

Sutherland acknowledged that city staff could have used a different means, such as the database of business licenses, to find contacts for the business owners. Later, he emphasized that that problem is in the past. “If any of these changes were to be even considered, I now have a group to connect with and say ‘Hey, these are the proposals, come share your experience.’” Sutherland said.

Rand Clark, of Maine Insurance Benefits Group, offered conciliatory words at the end of the meeting.

“I do want to thank you for reassuring us that there was no intent to go around us,” Clark said to Sutherland. “I know the present moment is uncomfortable, but I certainly hope in a year or two we’re all celebrating that some of the change, and the good, and the ideas could be incorporated with the traditional, and the old, and the historic that I was excited to be a part of.”

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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