2017-01-12 / Front Page

Council talks downtown façades

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

The building at 47 Main St., which recently used money from the Biddeford Façade Improvement Grant Program to install the storefront windows. (Anthony Aloisio photo) The building at 47 Main St., which recently used money from the Biddeford Façade Improvement Grant Program to install the storefront windows. (Anthony Aloisio photo) BIDDEFORD – City staff has offered the council changes to the city code and administration designed to improve the appearance of downtown.

“There’s a carrot and stick component to this,” said City Manager Jim Bennett, at the council’s Jan. 3 workshop.

The first change would be an addition to code requirements.

“There’s a provision in the state guidelines as it relates to Community Development Block Grant applications, so you can declare an entire downtown slum and blighted,” Bennett said. “That’s an accepted standard that’s out there. To make it clear, that’s not what we’re talking about tonight.”

Bennett said buildings maintained in such a way that would contribute to that definition of slum and blight would be required to be fixed within two years. He also proposed another requirement that, when the building owner of a blighted building tried to pull a permit to do any other work on the building, a condition would be added that the dilapidated quality of the building would have to be fixed.

The proposed language given to the council is only preliminary, according to Bennett. That language included a penalty provision “for which a forfeiture of not less than $100 or more than $2,500 for each offense may be adjudged.” It also noted that “a separate offense shall be deemed committed on each day during or on which the blight continues.”

The proposed ordinance defined “blighted premises” to include fire and health hazards, as determined by the fire department, and attraction of illegal activity, as determined by the police department. The definition also included vacant buildings with missing or boarded windows, collapsing walls, damaged siding, missing paint, fire damage, a faulty foundation and rodent harborage.

The second change proposed would make updates to the city’s Façade Improvement Grant Program, also known as the Main Street Makeover Program. That program would be re-funded, along with some changes.

“Even though the program was run by the city, administered by the city, signed off by the city through the Economic Development (Department), we had used Heart of Biddeford to do a lot of the heavy lifting on that,” Bennett said.

He said that that partnership created a public perception that Heart of Biddeford had independent control of the funds, which they gave out selectively. Bennett said that that perception was not true, but it nonetheless created unproductive effects.

“In order to make it cleaner, we’re recommending that the Heart of Biddeford not be involved this time, that it would still be run directly out of our staff.”

According to Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore, the organization began helping with the program about two years ago.

“What we try to do is save the city time by using volunteers where it’s appropriate,” Poupore told the Courier. “There wasn’t an additional staff member in (the economic development department) like there is now.”

The awarding of grant funding under the program happens on a first-come-first-served basis, Bennett said.

“Whoever walks in the door and has qualified projects,” Bennett said at the workshop.

Each project has a maximum award of $15,000. The funding works by matching expenses; building owners or tenants are required to spend money on improvements to earn the grant money. Eligible projects under the grant include new signs, awnings, historic restoration, cleaning and painting, exterior lightning, roofing, increased access for disabled and siding repair. According to Poupore, the organization’s role has been to vet project applications by gathering information from applicants. That work was done by a Heart of Biddeford subcommittee, called the design committee. Last year it was staffed by Biddeford residents Holly Culloton, Joan Brooks, and Don Winterhalter, all of whom have volunteered for Heart of Biddeford for at least two years, according to Poupore.

“After the work was done in each building, the same subcommittee would go out to make sure that what the building owner applied for is what actually happened, and then that they had spent their 50 percent match,” Poupore said. “When all of that proof was in, the committee said the project was done and we submitted the paperwork to the city so that the vendors who made those changes to the building could receive their payment.”

She said the final decision-making on grant fund awards was done by the economic development department, but Heart of Biddeford did include recommendations with its submissions. Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson makes the ultimate decision on projects, according to Brad Favreau, economic development coordinator.

Along with removing Heart of Biddeford from the process, Bennett proposed that the program be changed in two ways. First, “façade” could be further defined to include only sides of a building that faced a public way. Second, the matching requirement could be amended to say project applicants would have to spend twice as much money for interior improvements to match the grant for the façade. As it is now, Bennett said, project applicants may match the funding by simply spending money on the interior of the building in a 1 to 1 ratio.

Re-funding of the program would come from tax increment financing (TIF) funds.

“We’re still evaluating how much we’re (going to) recommend that you put in there, I think the number will probably be between $50,000 and $100,000,” Bennett said.

Last year the program was funded $60,000, according to Poupore. She spoke well of the results the program has achieved.

“A lot of times people didn’t notice the changes in the downtown because they are so incremental,” Poupore said. “Instead within about a one-year period, six different buildings received makeovers.”

She said that McArthur Library, Trillium, Biscuits & Company and 47 Main Street—a vacant building owned by Derek Bedard—are buildings that used the grant program since October 2015. Poupore also said that the program is important for the future.

“There are several vacant spaces right now,” she said. “I would guess in the next year, as businesses are coming in and filling spaces, it will be very attractive to them to know that there’s a façade improvement program that will help them pay for their signage.

“When I go to other towns, you’ll often see just banners hanging in their windows, or tacked up to the top of their storefront. It’s obvious that they spent $100 instead of the $1,000 that it sometimes takes to make a really nice sign. A façade improvement program enables a brand new business owner that really wants to improve the downtown to make a real statement. When I see someone just using a banner for their signage, I think ‘That person’s not planning to stay here.’”

At the workshop meeting, councilors were primarily supportive of the two proposed changes, but with criticisms.

“A façade ordinance makes total sense,” said At-large Councilor Marc Lessard.

Lessard added, however, that efforts like the façade program and ordinance should be in parallel with other efforts.

“It’s not just a singular item, of street lights, it’s not just the parking garage, it’s everything,” Lessard said. “Unless we have all these things working in parallel, what ends up happening is, we work on one thing, which might be the parking garage, that doesn’t get build for two, three, four, maybe never, and then, it’s not like dominoes when you start the process on something new. Otherwise, this is a 40-year program. I want to be around to see it.”

“It seems to be that the stuff we’ve got in here is already in existence,” said Ward 7 Councilor Michael Ready. “We already have ordinances for all this stuff.”

“The major difference between what we have here and what we have on the books right now is, one is that this has an affirmative requirement for somebody to fix it up if it’s not at the point where it qualifies as one of the other issues,” Bennett replied. “For an example, a building could meet the definition of the slum and blighted area under the community development standard and still not be dangerous. You wouldn’t be able to take that building and go through the exercise, that you’ve done a couple of times with some dangerous buildings, because it wouldn’t meet that criteria.”

Ward 5 Councilor Bob Mills said he would like to see anti-graffiti provisions added to the ordinance.

Ward 3 Councilor Stephen St. Cyr asked for an idea of which buildings would be targeted by the ordinance change.

“We have not, under intention, gone down and identified which ones would meet the criteria,” Bennett said. “My sense is, it’s way less than 10 percent of the downtown.”

Mayor Alan Casavant spoke in support of the proposed changes.

“One of things that’s most striking about Biddeford’s downtown is its architecture,” Casavant said. “In order to have a vibrant economy you have to accentuate the uniqueness and the beauty, and what this façade ordinance can do is exactly that.”

“Many of the façades are in need of a facelift,” Roger Chretien, owner of Roger’s Barber Shop on Main Street, told the Courier. “I think the city should help the owners repair their building but not use any taxpayer money.”

Henry Vigue, owner of Music Plus, also on Main Street, said that another change the city could make would be to decrease the cost of permits for signs on storefronts. He said that he had put off adding new signs because the cost was too burdensome.

The proposed changes will be formally presented to the council at an upcoming meeting.

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

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