2017-02-09 / Neighbors

Meeting generates development, planning ideas

By Anthony Aloisio
Contributing Writer

SACO – A joint meeting of Saco and Biddeford’s respective city councils, planning boards, and city staff heard presentations, discussed traffic issues, and generated raw development ideas.

The meeting – which happened Jan. 31 in conference space at the People’sChoice Credit Union on Industrial Park Road in Saco – operated as a joint workshop, since no votes or other actions were taken.

“It’s exciting to be able to work together as two communities as if we were one, because we really are one in many ways,” said Saco Mayor Ron Michaud.

“In the past we’ve always talked about doing things mutually, but it seems that we get caught up in our own little theaters of operation and we never have time to do anything,” said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. “But now that we have a common ordinance where we have to meet, plus having the ongoing monthly meetings between the joint committee of the council, I think we’re making some progress.”

City staff and officials are required by ordinance to meet twice a year, according to Saco City Administrator Kevin Sutherland.

“The joint meetings are more ceremonial than anything else,” he said. “It’s for highlevel stuff. They met the first time last year and talked about weaknesses and opportunities. Biddeford talked about Saco’s strengths and weaknesses. Saco talked about Biddeford’s strengths and weaknesses.”

The meeting began with a presentation by Randy Dunton, who represented the South-Portland-based traffic engineering firm Gorrill Palmer. Dunton presented the results of a traffic study that examined the separate hypothetical effects of highway interchanges on downtown traffic. One potential interchange intersected with South Street in Biddeford, and the other Boom Road in Saco. Both navigate close to the Saco River and lead directly into and out of the joint downtown area.

According to Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett, the intention was to study the effects of a hypothetical interchange between existing highway exits 32 – which goes to Biddeford south of its downtown – and 36 – which goes to Saco, north of its downtown.

“We wanted to test the hypothesis that we had a number of vehicles that were driving through our collective downtowns to go to the other community, just simply to get to an exit,” Bennett said during a question-and-answer session. “If you look at downtowns, the more you have pedestrians and less vehicles driving through, the more successful your downtown would be.”

Bennett said that the purpose of the study was not to directly assess whether or not to create a new exit.

“What we’ve concluded from it is that, if there was another exit, there’d be about a 10 percent shift out of the downtown of people that had no intentions of shopping or really doing anything,” Bennett said.

Bennett also said that the last part of the meeting – a semi-structured brainstorming session – was meant to generate other ideas with respect to improving downtown traffic.

After a presentation on downtown development by Heart of Biddeford Executive Director Delilah Poupore and Saco Main Street Executive Director Rob Biggs, the crowd of meeting attendees – about 50 in total – were split into eight smaller groups for an activity designed to generate planning and development ideas.

The memberships of the small groups were essentially randomized –Sutherland split them up by favorite foods, weather and superheroes – and each group had a table with a single map of both downtown areas. Sutherland instructed the groups to suppose that the downtowns were a “clean slate,” such that any part of the downtowns could be put together in any new way. The groups were asked to generate ideas for infrastructure, businesses and ordinance changes without any restrictions.

At least three groups proposed converting various intersections into roundabouts, including the intersections of Maine Street, Elm Street and Beach Street in Saco; and Elm Street and South Street in Biddeford. Three groups supported increasing access to the river in the downtown, especially from Saco Island, for boats, kayaks and other watercraft.

“We looked at municipal purchase of Saco Island East or a public-private partnership, so we had some control over what was built there,” said Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Craig Pendleton, on behalf of his group, which included Casavant, Michaud, and Saco Economic Development Director Bill Mann. “It’d be nice to dredge the river and have a marina right there. We talked about some pedestrian bridges to enhance the RiverWalk.”

At least two groups proposed parking garages on either side of the river. Biddeford At-large Councilor Laura Seaver, who spoke for a group that included herself, Biddeford Ward 1 Councilor Michael Swanton and Poupore, put a parking garage at the former site of the Maine energy Recovery Company in Biddeford.

At least three groups mentioned moving the train stop on Saco Island south to Biddeford.

“If Saco wants to pitch in, we could make it happen fast,” Seaver said for her group.

“There was not a whole lot of fear about closing off Pepperell Square and making that pedestrian,” said Saco Main Street President Bette Brunswick for her group, which included Biddeford Ward 5 Councilor Bob Mills, Biddeford Ward 2 Councilor John McCurry, and Biddeford Ward 7 Councilor Michael Ready.

Other groups offered much more general strategies.

“Spend the money and do it right,” said Biddeford At-large Councilor Marc Lessard. “Try and look further ahead. A lot of times we just put band-aids on things, we spend as little money as possible. I understand the tax impact, but we feel, try to coordinate it and be able to think a little further ahead.”

“Marc, did you say spend money?” McCurry said in response.

“Do we have that on tape?” asked Mills, amid laughter from the crowd.

Sutherland said that the ideas were recorded so that the separate city staffs could draw on the more popular ones to develop into potential projects in the future.

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