2017-02-16 / Front Page

Mayor delivers first-ever state of the city address

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Mayor Casavant, speaking for more than 20 minutes, delivered his first-ever state of the city address in which he expounded on a dramatically changed city for the better, but which still has work to do.

“I anticipate even greater changes,” he said after the city council meeting Feb. 8. “If we continue to be bold, preserve our history, invest in ourselves and craft an environment where diversity is welcomed and creativity becomes our obsession.”

Casavant spoke about the state of Biddeford when he was young: The “old mill town” was alive but restaurants were sparse, and with a changing economy and multiple recessions, “the erosion of jobs and stores became a mantra for all that was wrong with the city.”

However, much has changed since then, he said, with many new visitors and residents moving into the city because Biddeford is “hot” – a word the mayor said he has heard used to describe Biddeford – and the city now has much more to offer.

“Biddeford is no longer an old, struggling mill town,” Casavant said. “It is hip. It is energetic. It is cutting edge. It is inviting. Today, we can all proudly say that Biddeford is truly ‘leading the way.’”

Casavant said the life of Biddeford hasn’t just changed, but so has public perception of the city.

What has “triggered this perceptual change in this city,” the mayor said, was a combination of the relationship between the government and entrepreneurs, which has “fueled a metamorphosis;” the current city council, because of its “professionalism and objectivity,” which has in turn fostered an inviting atmosphere for investors; and a successful downtown, which harbors restaurants that have won national and regional accolades, a multitude of businesses that have emerged, and where festivals and farmers markets take place, as well as changes in infrastructure.

The mayor also extolled the work of Doug Sanford, owner of Pepperrell Mill Campus and “revitalization pioneer” who the mayor credited for inviting new businesses into formerly empty buildings that now “bustle with charm and amazing activity.”

However, the mayor said, parking remains a significant issue. He referred to it as “our albatross.”

“Unless a parking structure is constructed, without using property tax dollars, maximum development of the mill spaces and downtown cannot occur,” Casavant said. “Even the vacant Maine Energy lot will become paralyzed by the parking issue, and the wave of development that we are witnessing will slow.”

“The construction of a garage is a tough decision,” he continued. “It is bold. It is controversial. It is costly. It is unlike anything that we have ever done, but doing nothing is not an option. It would be our greatest failure.”

The mayor lamented on the fact that “two large entities decided not to come into the downtown because of the lack of guaranteed parking for their employees. Many small businesses, in the past five years, had already come to the same conclusion. We cannot continue to lose jobs and businesses because of a tragic infrastructure failure. It is costing us valuable tax dollars and restricting our potential. We need a garage, and we need it yesterday.”

Casavant said the city’s acquisition of the Maine Energy site for $6.5 million in 2012, despite the controversy that surrounded it five years ago, proved to be a correct decision. The acquisition went on to produce a variety of projects and businesses, including Dirigo Brewing, Lofts at Saco Falls, potential development of the Lincoln Street Mill and Pepperell Center.

The city council, under the leadership of Councilors Marc Lessard and Stephen St. Cyr, has begun budgeting for capital projects.

“Immediate action is needed,” with low taxation, the failure to invest in infrastructure, and a painful recession creating “the perfect storm of need,” the mayor said.

“The funding of reserve accounts, in a world of limited tax dollars, places great pressure on our ability to fund services, salaries, repair infrastructure and provide quality education,” Casavant said.

Casavant said cities have been forced to depend on property taxes to fund the many facets of government due to the state’s “ongoing failure to adequately fund schools and revenue sharing.” As a result, he said, mil rates have become “the focus and bane of property owners,” but that it’s important to remember that mil rates are “not the sole culprit in one’s property taxes.”

Noting the importance of education in community growth and quality of life, the mayor, who said the city budget’s majority share is dedicated to education, praised the work of Superintendent Jeremy Ray, who he said has accomplished a myriad of items for the education system, including the increase of morale of students and teachers and, through “budgetary vigilance and insight,” has saved the community thousands of dollars.

“Because of his leadership, the wisdom of the school board, and our remarkable staff, our school system is, today, exceptional,” said Casavant, who is chairman of the school board.

However, hurdles remain, Casavant said. These hurdles include a lack of subsidy income from the state, the lack of sustainability of the mile rate to meet the demands of education costs, and the failure to maintain buildings and other infrastructure, such as Waterhouse Field. Costs for renovation could exceed $2 million, Casavant said.

Casavant said after reading an article about Iceland’s after-school programs, he’d like to see Biddeford implement something similar to reduce drug and alcohol use, stress, depression, anxiety and poor behavior that is occurring state-wide, and to increase self-confidence and self-esteem. He said ongoing data has indicated a reduction in these things when ample options for learning and pleasure can be provided. However, the mayor acknowledged the “huge cost” in implementing such a program.

“(There is) also a huge cost in not taking action,” Casavant said.

After imploring for the continued collaboration with University of New England, the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Heart of Biddeford and Southern Maine Health Care, organizations that are all “essential to all the progress that we will achieve,” as well as the continued collaboration with Saco with the “best interests of both parties,” Casavant cited author Tom Wolfe’s emphasis on the arts.

The arts can engender a “psychological economy,” in which “money is exchanged for an experience, not a product. You bring home nothing except an experience, a gratification,” according to Wolfe. Citing the work of glass artist Joseph Webber, Eventide chef and coowner Andrew Taylor, Brooklyn clothing designer Roxi Suger, and local writer and editor Celia Blue Johnson – all of whom work or live in Biddeford – Casavant said the need for arts in Biddeford is evident.

Despite the positive changes and great potential, Biddeford still faces issues with hunger and polarized politics, and it also feels the effects of Maine’s opioid crisis, Casavant said.

Although the mayor didn’t go into details about the effects seen in Biddeford, he said Biddeford and Saco, in a collaboration, recently acquired a state grant to deal with the opioid crisis. Additionally, a coordinator has been hired on behalf of the Biddeford Police Department to assist police officers in connecting with affected individuals and their families to resources and services needed for recovery. The Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition and Project Alliance, Casavant said, “allow for proper funding and staffing and focus on education, prevention, and understanding” to mitigate the issue. The Rotary Club and the police department’s Street Crimes Unit have also contributed to this, the mayor said.

Regarding hunger in Biddeford, the mayor said, “We need to do more.” Food pantries exist in Biddeford, but because the issue of hunger still remains, the mayor exhorted residents to continue to help “those who have fallen trough the cracks of our economy . . . because that’s what being a community is truly all about.”

Casavant said he’s particularly concerned about the “caustic polarization” in Biddeford and beyond. He told a story about a friend who recently told him that Biddeford’s politics are “unique” because it’s “the only (government) in which individuals are completely willing to throw the entire city under the bus in order to gain their political advantage.” Casavant said it was not always this way, but recently “all rules of civic engagement and respect have evaporated . . . We need to stop throwing each other under the bus.”

“There is so much more that can be done to enhance our city,” the mayor said in his final minutes of the speech. He implored for the completion and investment in the RiverWalk project, and for the linkage of Mechanic’s Park to the Diamond National property, saying, “scenic riverfronts are known catalysts of economic rebirth,” and citing the Saco River Falls as an example, since it was once hidden from most residents.

“We must also work closely with Saco to consider the possible creation of a new train station and a transportation center within our combined mill district,” Casavant said. “I believe we should explore the possibilities of moving people more efficiently through the development of an efficient, modern and convenient system of busing and trains . . . (We) must continue to pressure the federal government to secure the funds needed to dredge the Saco River. Both communities are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential economic activity because our river is filled with debris and sand. That is unacceptable.”

Casavant said housing stock in Biddeford is “old and in need of repair,” and that “we need to draft the necessary ordinances to protect our residents and eliminate blight.”

At the end of his address, the mayor said that the objective should be to continue the creation of a city “that will meet the needs and wants of future generations. We are not building for today, but for tomorrow. To do that, we need all hands on deck. We need more people to become active on committees, commissions and in volunteering. Arm chair quarterbacking does not determine the outcome of the game. That game is won in the trenches, on a day-today level of discussion, debate and implementation.”

“We live in a remarkable community, but the best is still yet to come.”

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