2017-01-05 / Front Page

A look back at 2016

Development abundant, along with other notable stories
By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

The modular buildings of the Young School in Saco, after the Dec. 29 snowstorm. At the beginning of 2016 the community was in controversy about whether to replace the modulars with a new building or to consolidate Young School with Fairfield Elementary. The school department is working with Oak Point Associates, a Biddeford architecture firm, to submit an application for school construction funds from the Maine Department of Education. (Anthony Aloisio photo) The modular buildings of the Young School in Saco, after the Dec. 29 snowstorm. At the beginning of 2016 the community was in controversy about whether to replace the modulars with a new building or to consolidate Young School with Fairfield Elementary. The school department is working with Oak Point Associates, a Biddeford architecture firm, to submit an application for school construction funds from the Maine Department of Education. (Anthony Aloisio photo) At the end of each year, the Courier looks back at the most important stories published during the last 12 months. Take a look back at 2016 with some of the most memorable and interesting news stories that shaped the year for Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach.

The Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation successfully sued the owners of Steer N Stein Pub and Grill after alleging that Steer N Stein spent loan money in a fraudulent manner. In 2015 owner Harold Royals received $125,000 in loans from the Economic Development Corporation for the purpose of renovating 140 Main St. – the former location of Bebe’s Burritos & Cantina and current location of Cowbell Burgers and Brews – but the money was ultimately spent on personal expenses, including a large transfer to the mother of Royals’s business associate, Peter Powers, of Scarborough, and a long list of meals at area restaurants.

A frosted jetty at Camp Ellis in Saco after the Dec. 29 snowstorm. (Anthony Aloisio photo) A frosted jetty at Camp Ellis in Saco after the Dec. 29 snowstorm. (Anthony Aloisio photo) The Courier began covering the fraud when it was discovered that Royals had lied about his connection to Powers. Powers himself had earlier caused the city of Gardiner to lose $37,000 in loans, after opening Alex Parker’s Steakhouse in that city and later closing without paying back the balance. Although Royals denied that he was connected with the Powers and the steakhouse, Royals’s name appeared on the application to Gardiner for a liquor license, and Gardiner officials said that he had attended meetings with Powers in connection with the loans.

In February, Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation filed a lawsuit alleging fraudulent transfer and breach of contract, seeking to collect the $125,000 loan debt. Powers and Royals proceeded without an attorney, and failed to answer the corporation’s complaint within the time required, in spite of a successful motion to extend the time to May 23, 2016. After the owners failed to answer, the corporation successfully obtained a default judgment and writ of execution from Cumberland County Superior Court, which allows it to proceed to collect some of the value toward the debt.

As the Courier reported in its Mar. 24 issue, the city contributes about $20,000 each year to loans underwritten by the development corporation, and Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson said at the time that that $20,000 was part of the $125,000 loan to Steer N Stein. However, Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett disagreed that that was the case.

“One of the interesting fallacies out there was that the city lost money,” Bennet told the Courier this month. “The truth of the matter is that the money never went out the door. It was in the hands of the development corporation, but the development corporation never ended up using our money because it didn’t meet the criteria that was necessary to lend it. They could never actually use our money, because they never had the authority to lend that money to them because it never created any jobs.”

The former location of Steer N Stein is now occupied by Cowbell Burgers and Brews, owned by Jim Albert, who also owns Jimmy the Greek’s in Old Orchard Beach. Albert said the restaurant has had steady business.

“The ownership group plans to continue developing in Biddeford with the opening of a small wine bar called ‘Uncorked’ next month,” Albert wrote in an email. “It will be located directly across the street at the corner of Franklin and Main.”

In Old Orchard Beach, Easter Seals, Maine picked up responsibility for the Run for Cash Memorial 5K, a memorial road race, after its original organizer, Nancy Lee Kelley, announced that she and husband Bob Kelley would not continue organizing it.

The race is named for Capt. Christopher Cash, Kelley’s son, who was killed in 2004 while serving with the National Guard in Iraq. Kelley began the race as a way to channel the grief of her son’s loss. The event takes place on the weekend of the anniversary of Cash’s death, June 24. Cash was a graduate of Old Orchard Beach High School, and he left behind two sons.

Over the last 12 years, the event has raised more than $40,000 in scholarships for area students and military families. It also benefits veteran support organizations. It has been supported by the community, including Old Orchard Beach’s public safety departments.

Kelley said she and her husband had to discontinue organizing the event because of health problems. Nancy Kelley is 70 years old and Bob Kelley 72, as of July. They announced in July that the 2017 race would be the last they organized. However, Kelley left the event open to continue, in a different form or organized by someone else.

“If people want to reserve that weekend of Chris’s death and plan something, either a reunion cookout or a race early one morning on the beach, I will give it to the people,” Kelley said in July.

In October, Easter Seals Maine took up that offer. Veterans Count Maine, a fundraising chapter in support of Easter Seals Maine, will organize the race after 2017.

Easter Seals Maine’s Military and Veterans Programs provide emergency financial assistance, information, counseling and referral to post 9/11 veterans and their families. According to their October press release, Old Orchard Beach High School will continue to receive a $1,000 scholarship in memoriam of Capt. Cash.

For more information about the race, readers can visit www.runforcash.org.

Biddeford continued its efforts this year to build a strong downtown according to a vision that includes a vibrant Main Street, accommodating pedestrian architecture and abundant parking. Reconstruction of Main Street sidewalks began, along with some initial discussion of significantly changing the intersection of Adams and Main streets. There were also various efforts to bring in and support downtown businesses, the possibility of a parking garage was reprised, and talk of repairs to city hall and its clock tower were renewed.

In January 2016, city staff presented design ideas to the council for developing a new concept for the intersection of Main and Adams streets, where city hall sits. The ideas discussed focused on the basic concept of opening the intersection up to be a “New England” or “European style” city square, where vehicle traffic could pass slowly and where pedestrians and bicycles could feel comfortable passing as well. One idea involved City Square Park, a small park abutting that intersection, being opened up and included as part of the square. Another idea had the street raised up to the level of the sidewalk with vehicle passage narrowed and inhibited by bollards.

Although those ideas have yet to develop, a connected project began progressing in the summer, with the tearing up and reconstruction of sidewalks on Main Street. Construction began in September starting at Alfred Street and progressing toward Washington Street. The community reacted negatively to the removal of trees that once stood on the sidewalks, but Linda Waters, Community Development Block Grant coordinator, who oversaw funding for the project, said that the tree removal was necessary.

“We certainly would have salvaged them if they could have been salvaged, because trees are expensive to buy and plant,” Waters told the Courier in September.

The trees were planned to be replaced by vegetation planters and some in-ground trees. More construction, which will include pedestrian features like bump-outs and cobblestone crosswalks, is planned for the spring.

That construction was approved by federal Housing and Urban Development – which provides the block grants – to continue up to Elm Street, but in 2016 it was only funded on the city’s part up to Adams Street.

Work was also done to support business activity in the downtown. Heart of Biddeford began a program in September to match business owners with vacant space in the downtown. The program, called the “Great Space Showcase,” surveyed property owners in the downtown area to ask which storefronts and office space locations were vacant. Then, volunteers for Heart of Biddeford gave tours of the spaces. Part of the same effort was to attract business owners to use the spaces for short term “pop-up” businesses, which usually are limited to a specific season like, for example, the end-of-year holiday season.

“We held the first one in September and we are planning another for April,” said Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore. “The one in September (along with our pop-up program) has led to several businesses considering spaces, but nothing officially has come through yet.”

At the end of the year, staff began exploring changes to anti-blight provisions of the city code and also the Biddeford Façade Improvement Grant Program in a new effort to improve the visual appearance of Main Street. The grant program is controlled by the city, according to City Manager Jim Bennett, but the application process is handled by Heart of Biddeford. One change to the program would be to put the application process back in the city’s hands. Bennett said that Heart of Biddeford’s involvement was creating a public perception that the organization was playing or could play favorites with downtown businesses.

“It created a dialogue in the community that was unproductive,” Bennett said.

Other changes to the program would be to alter how the funding-matching calculation is done – to give less money matching interior building renovations – and to clarify that “façade” meant only street-facing portions of the outside of buildings.

Another expected downtown development, the redevelopment of the Lincoln Mill into commercial and residential space, experienced plan changes and delays in 2016. Although the plan had included development of a hotel, the developer, LHL Holdings, removed the hotel from the plan in February. Mark Robinson, communications consultant for LHL in February, said that that change was in reaction to an increased demand for housing.

During the year the development also received waivers for parking requirements from the planning board totaling 263 spaces. In November no building permits had been applied for, according to Director of Code Enforcement Roby Fecteau. In spite of that, Bennett said that staff was having “fairly active” discussions with LHL.

“It’s an ambitious project,” said developer Tim Harrington in November. “We’ve done some work, but I think the full gear-up will happen after early spring.”

Efforts to develop a downtown parking garage were reprised in November when the city council authorized a request for proposals from architecture firms to evaluate and select downtown sites for potential construction of a parking garage. The city has explored the possibility of a parking garage since at least 2012, when it received a report from a feasibility study on traffic and parking in the downtown that recommended structured parking.

“They were saying, from a feasibility standpoint ‘you’re (going to) need structured parking, how the city chooses to do it is a policy decision.’” Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson told the Courier in November.

Although the effort stalled back then – largely for political reasons, according to Mayor Alan Casavant – this fall it appeared that two large employers declined to locate in Biddeford because of the lack of parking, according to Bennett.

At the time of authorizing the RFP, Casavant and councilors were adamant that any parking garage would not be paid for by taxpayers. Instead, according to Bennett, it would be funded by revenue from user fees and funds from tax increment financing (TIF) revenue. The funding would require the city to issue a bond, and at the end of the year a question about whether that bond would need to be put to referendum was answered by the city’s bond counsel, James Saffian, of Pierce Atwood in Portland.

“We were just making sure that we had clarify from bond counsel that as long as we are not pledging the general obligations,” Bennett told the Courier in December, “in other words, current or future property tax dollars . . . , those are considered revenue bonds and we do not have to go to the voters to be able to make those bonds.”

Bennett added that one of the questions for bond counsel was whether TIF funds were considered general taxation. The answer was “no,” he said, so long as the funds were earmarked for the purpose at hand.

“A parking structure was part of all the original TIF documents,” Bennett said.

Answers to the RFP were received before the end of the year, but no public information on the city staff’s review of those answers was available before the Courier’s deadline. Answers were received from Desman Design Management of Connecticut, Oak Point Associates of Biddeford, OES associates of New York, Platz Associates of Auburn and Winton Scott Architects of Portland. A group of city officials met internally on Dec. 30 to decide which firms to interview. That group was composed of Planning Board Member Chico Potvin, Downtown Development Commission Member Spiros Droggitis, Biddeford resident Dan Boucher, At-large Councilor Marc Lessard, and Ward 5 Councilor Bob Mills.

The RFP answers provided fee schedules and project timelines. The project timelines ended with the end of the construction administration phase of the project, which is the last part of the scope of work for the firms. The fee schedules covered site selection, design, and construction administration, but do not include the cost of construction of the garage, since that is not within the scope of the firms’ work. Proposals for the end of the project ranged from July to December 2018. Fees ranged around $600,000, with the lowest being under $300,000 and the highest just above $800,000, with some schedules building in ranges for of optional services.

An update on the interview process for the firms will be given at the Jan. 17 council meeting, according to Bennett.

Another downtown project connected to downtown parking was the demolition of Building 16 at the Pepperell Mill Campus. Begun in January, that was expected to create 40 parking spots available to the campus. According to Scott Joslin, general manager of the mill campus, the parking lot was completed in February, and made space for about 50 cars.

“It was direly needed, because one of our large constraints on the project was parking,” Joslin said this month. He added that it didn’t solve their parking problem, and that it was “more of a band aid.”

“We’ve got 65 percent of the project completed, a million square feet of interior space, so a little more than half of it has been developed,” Joslin said. “We’re managing our parking need now, but we still have another 350,000 square feet to go.”

Finally, the city’s historic preservation commission began advocating for repair of the city hall clock tower, which has failed to be funded by three bond referenda since 2007. In 2014 the clock tower was listed as endangered by Maine Preservation, a private nonprofit historic preservation organization, along with the Lincoln Mill clock tower, which still sits unused at the former site of Maine Energy Recovery Company.

Director of Facilities Phil Radding joined the preservation commission in voicing support for restoration of the city hall clock tower. He said that the tower was designed, along with the rest of city hall, in the 1890s by John Calvin Stevens, a renowned and prolific Maine architect.

“Now you’ve got all this development going in the downtown,” Radding said, “and the city council kind of realizes that we need to do something to update our building because, if you want to be a progressive city, if you want development in the downtown, if you want things to happen, we need to address city hall.”

Multiple conversations were had between the Saco community, city staff and officials about the vision for the development of Saco’s downtown area. In September city staff and Hardypond Construction, a Portland-based construction company, announced that the former Notre Dame de Lourdes church on Cutts Avenue was being looked at for redevelopment by Hardypond. Hardypond subsequently formed an LLC to manage the development process, Cutts Avenue, LLC. Also in September, the city revealed that it was considering closing Pepperell Square to vehicle traffic, and the community pushed back against the idea.

The church redevelopment would see the church building itself converted into market-rate housing in the first phase. In later phases, the former rectory on the same property would be demolished to make space for one of two additional residential buildings. The latter two buildings would be designed as “active 55 plus” housing, geared towards middle-aged people and above, according to Frank Carr, Hardypond’s director of business development.

The redevelopment would proceed with a focus on historic preservation, according to Carr and Hardypond Vice President Bob Gaudreau. The church building has various architectural features, including stained glass windows and detail fixtures, that Hardypond would spend extra money to preserve, according to Gaudreau.

“These are exciting things that we don’t get to see in today’s architecture,” Gaudreau said at a community meeting.

Pushback from the community manifested over the issue of parking connected to the development. According to Saco’s zoning ordinance, that kind of development in that area of the city had a much smaller requirement for off-street parking.

“Downtowns work best when not dominated by parking lots,” said City Planner Bob Hamblen.

“(Downtown property) is very valuable,” said Saco Economic Development Director Bill Mann at an October planning board meeting on the matter, “so if you have to take a portion of it up for surface parking, or even underground parking, versus housing units, it drives the development of the property up on a per-unit basis, therefore translating into higher rents.”

In addition to the zoning ordinance provisions, Cutts Avenue, LLC originally planned to ask for a further reduction in off-street parking requirements as part of a contract zone agreement between it and the city, to be approved by the city council, a request which the LLC ultimately dropped.

The Hardypond officials had defended the small off street parking requirement by putting it into the context of a larger vision of urban life in downtown Saco, where residents of the development could walk or use public transportation to get around rather than needing to park a car.

“We stood on the church doorsteps and were able to walk to five different restaurants,” Carr told the Courier.

The community pushed back against that vision. The LLC held multiple community meetings in the city hall auditorium, and additionally some community members turned out for the meeting of the planning board where the contract zone agreement was reviewed.

“The reality of today is that people have to work,” said Planning Board Member Peter Scontras at the October planning board meeting. “When you’re talking about public transportation you’re talking about cities that aren’t like Saco.”

Another controversy formed in October around the city’s consideration of closing Pepperell Square partially or fully to vehicle traffic. In 2015 the city received a report from a traffic study done by the South Portland traffic engineering firm Gorrill Palmer, which recommended removing the traffic light at the intersection of Pepperell Square and Main Street. Another report—from T.Y. Lin International, another traffic engineering firm with an office in Falmouth—outlined the possibility of closure of the square to traffic.

Another purpose of the idea, according to Planning Board Member Don Girouard, was to add space for pedestrian activity to the downtown.

At an October meeting between community members, Pepperell Square business owners, and city staff, the community rejected the ideas behind the proposed closure.

“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 at the meeting. “What I’m interesting in hearing is, is the closing of Pepperell Square to traffic not worth it in that regard?”

The community, through a show of hands, responded that it was not.

Additionally, the community resisted the idea that closing Pepperell Square was necessary to improve traffic on Main Street. Alternatives were offered, including working with Amtrak to change the function of the railroad crossing and eliminating left-hand turns on Main Street.

As of the year’s end, no official action is pending by the city with regard to Pepperell Square.

The Notre Dame church redevelopment continues into 2017. At the end of November an amended contract zone agreement was approved by the city council, without extended relief for off street parking requirements, and in fact with an additional requirement that Cutts Avenue, LLC provide either 25 parking spaces or resident access to three on-demand self-service transportation vehicles, such as Zipcar. Ward 6 Councilor Eric Cote opposed the agreement on more basic grounds.

“It just should be a smaller project,” Cote said at the November meeting. “It should be a 44- to 45-unit project.”

The same developer, Hardypond Development, is also in the process of purchasing and redeveloping 90 Temple St. from the city. The building on that property is a historic structure, according to city council information materials. Hardypond responded to a request for proposals from the city to redevelop it, and the city’s historic preservation commission voted unanimously to recommend sale of the property to Hardypond. The council voted on Dec. 19 to authorize the city administrator to enter into a memorandum of understanding for the renovation and potential sale of the property.

Talk among Saco city officials of suing the Army Corps of Engineers over lack of action on the erosion of beach sands at Camp Ellis had diminished since preliminary progress re-started, although slowly. City officials have been working since the early 1990s to devise a solution to the ongoing erosion, which has resulted in the loss of 38 properties on 2,500 feet of beach – or a loss of $200,000 in property tax revenue annually.

In June 2016, the mayor and city council began openly discussing a lawsuit against the corps.

“The purpose of a lawsuit is to move something along,” said Eric Cote, councilor for Ward 4, in June.

The potential projects to fix the erosion involve building at least one spur on the jetty at Camp Ellis, and adding sand to the beaches in order to re-nourish the soil there. Some of the sand would likely be provided by a separate but connected project, the overdue dredge of the Saco River.

“(This was a) project in which, it was going to be fixing Camp Ellis and at the same time they were going to dredge the river,” Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland said this month. “And then they separated those projects because the Ellis issue was much longer in terms of solving than trying to get a dredge in there. They’re kind of on parallel approaches to solving. The river dredge is in a better situation than it was.”

In September, members of Saco’s Coastal Waters Commission told the Courier that the water depth around the mouth of the river was too shallow and was an obstacle to navigation, and navigation in the river is important to commercial activity. In October, Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, along with Rep. Chellie Pingree, sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers asking them to prioritize a dredge of Saco River.

Also in October, city officials met with Army Corps of Engineers representatives to discuss the feasibility study of the jetty spurs. The report of that study still needs to pass another intermediate step – review by another corps office – according to Sutherland, before it can be acted on by the corps. Sutherland said that that was expected to be completed in December, but it is moving slower than expected.

In spite of the slow pace, Sutherland, for his part, is not thinking about a lawsuit.

“I’d rather get this project done than go suing the federal government,” Sutherland said. “If we go that route, there goes any chance of that getting done any time soon. I’m not going to advocate for that at this stage.”

Following a rule change by the Biddeford city council shortening, and at one time eliminating, periods of public comment, an amendment to the city’s charter was passed by voters ensuring a public comment period during all city council meetings.

In January, the council shortened public comments from five minutes to three minutes. Some backlash from the community followed.

“It sends a clear message that, ‘We do not want to hear from you,’” said Joanne Twomey, former mayor and state representative, in February.

“If people are prepared, three minutes is usually fine,” Mayor Alan Casavant told the Courier this month.

In February, Ward 2 Councilor John McCurry had said the same thing.

According to Casavant, the reason for the change was that, at that time, there were individual community members who would use the time to be accusatory and insulting toward the city officials.

“Frankly there has to be an element of public decorum at a council meeting,” Casavant said. “It’s a place where a city does business and it shouldn’t be accusatory and insulting at all.”

The charter amendment that passed in November requires that the city “maintain an ordinance (to be adopted within six months) establishing procedures to allow the public to address the city council at all city council meetings.” The same amendment allows a concurrence of two councilors to place an item on the council’s agenda within 30 days.

“With this new charter change, the council has to adjust its rules so that there has to be some commentary, but it’s up to the discretion of the council how it will be done,” Casavant said. “Time allotment, when it appears on the agenda, that’s all up to the council.”

Howard Hanson, former city councilor and member of Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, said he voted for the amendment, but with criticisms.

“It leaves it to the council to make the rules for public comment,” Hanson wrote in a message.

“Some of us wanted it specified that a portion of the council meeting be set aside for public comment,” Hanson continued. “That would have been stronger wording and fulfilled what many want to see in a public comment period.”

Casavant said regardless of the length of the comment period, people still are able to convey their points and information to the council.

“If that timeframe is too short, then they should be able to submit some sort of documentation,” Casavant said.

He said members of the public can always send emails or make phone calls to city officials, and added that most people are more comfortable presenting business that way.

When asked, Casavant agreed that appearing in person before a public meeting of the council had special advantages, and that if public comment went away something would be lost.

“In particular instances that may be true,” Casavant said. “But in most instances that’s probably not true. In many cases, at least in the last couple of years, appearances before the council did not really focus on a particular issue, but focused on personality, which really defeated the whole purpose.”

Casavant said that the council would probably discussing the language of the required ordinance this month.

After a controversial conversation in Saco about whether to consolidate Young and Fairfield elementary schools, the initiative was ultimately displaced by a separate effort to obtain state funding for the necessary school building construction.

At the end of 2015, two options emerged for the replacement of Young School, which has been located in modular buildings for more than a decade. The old school building had to be torn down because of mold, and about three years ago a school construction committee was formed to explore options for reconstruction. The committee was composed of community members, school staff, city council members and school board members.

The first option would cost $21.5 million and would build a new school building for Young school, while providing some renovations for Fairfield school. The second option would cost $27.8 million and would relocate both schools into a single building.

Saco Schools Superintendent Dominic DePatsy said that the committee agreed for either option that preschool facilities would be developed.

“That was good that the committee agreed on that,” DePatsy told the Courier in December.

Polling by the school district revealed that the community was evenly split in support of the two options. In January of this year, an online petition appeared briefly opposing the consolidation option. Opponents of the consolidation cited research that claimed to show that elementary aged children lean better in smaller schools, along with the higher price tag and the fact that the proposed location for the new school would be farther on the outside of town – on the same property as the Kimball Health Center.

The school board voted to keep both schools. In September, the city council was preparing to submit a bond referendum to the city to fund the $21.5 million required, but that was interrupted by the news that the Maine Department of Education was opening a new application cycle to fund major school construction process. According to DePatsy, districts may make applications for individual school construction projects, and the Department of Education will rank those schools based on need.

“This fall, they opened the list back up for applications,” DePatsy said. “You have from Oct. 15 to April 15 to do an application. We did that application with our architects, which is Oak Point (Associates, a Biddeford-based firm). Since the city council saw that announcement, they decided that we should go after that money first, before going out to referendum.”

As a result, the council did not put a bond to referendum for November.

The question of what will happen for a new school building is effectively re-opened.

“(The Department of Education) will decide what we build,” DePatsy said, but added that the ultimate authority on whether to accept the state’s funding and plan is still with the city council.

“If we do get selected on the list, then they will come back to us and say, hypothetically, ‘we’ll combine the schools, (or) we’ll just give you Young school,’” DePatsy continued. “I don’t know, but, most of the time they’ll consolidate. That’s what they like to do, because they don’t want all of these individual schools around with school enrollment going down.”

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

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