2017-06-08 / Front Page

Council would have to vote to eliminate commission

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Downtown Development Commission met to discuss the future of the group and what projects it wants to implement if it continues to exist. The group, in operation since 1995, does not have funding for fiscal year 2018, but it has about $3,100 remaining in its budget.

City Manager Jim Bennett, not present during the meeting, said during a phone interview the commission’s continuation is up to a vote by city council, but he didn’t expect a decision soon.

Commission Chairman Bill Durkin said he didn’t know how the council felt but heard rumors the Downtown Development Commission will go away once the Downtown Improvement District is fully implemented sometime during the next year.

Bennett said over the next three or four months he will begin to meet with business leaders to help facilitate the creation of bylaws for the Downtown Improvement District. He said if that doesn’t happen there won’t be a Downtown Improvement District a year from now. Bennett said not everyone is on board right now but he will act as a resource for information in the meantime.

The Downtown Improvement District will raise funds via a mil rate on downtown businesses for cleaning, beautification efforts, promotions and downtown activities. The city of Biddeford is funding the district entirely prior to July 1, 2017. For fiscal year 2018 half of the proposed $84,116 district budget will come from the city. City funding in subsequent years will ultimately be decided by city council. Planters installed on Main Street were part of the district’s initial budget funded by the city.

“From there I envision (the Downtown Improvement District) will take off on its own and the city won’t have anything to do with it,” Bennett said.

Biddeford resident and Downtown Development Commission member Stephanie Edwards said she is concerned there aren’t more clear guidelines for the board of directors of the Downtown Improvement District. She said she appreciates the energy behind the Downtown Improvement District and wants to make sure the right questions are asked before anything is approved. Edwards said she would like to see the Downtown Development Commission continue to advise on downtown matters.

“That could be our goal,” Edwards said. “Break setting in a healthy way so it’s not just a onetime shot. Jim is motivated to do it right. That’s only one person; the city staff can only do so many things. We could provide checks and balances.”

Edwards said some business owners in the downtown felt planters recently installed on Main Street were a little rushed. She said many people loved the concept but wish they had been able to provide more input.

Durkin said the commission used to operate without a budget about 20 years ago and it’s possible to do so again.

Durkin said one project the commission has been working on is establishing Wi-Fi in downtown.

Economic Development Coordinator Brad Favreau said the commission could proceed with its investigation into the feasibility of installing Wi-Fi in downtown. He said the proper electrical permit has to be obtained but there is already a cable in place from two previous failed attempts. The project never got off the ground in the past because of plans to charge people for use of the Wi-Fi.

“Right now there are a number of green lights,” Favreau said.

Julian Schlaver, co-owner of Angelrox, said his biggest concern is what the commission will be able to tangibly do without a budget unless members are prepared to increase their time commitment to the group. Schlaver said unlike the Heart of Biddeford, the Downtown Development Commission lacks community volunteers, subcommittee structure and paid staff, factors that keep the commission from being as effective.

“The future of the Downtown Development Commission is determined by our commitment to it and the ability we have to change things on our charter,” Schlaver said.

Heart of Biddeford, which was established 2004, is a quasi-municipal downtown revitalization organization that operates on a $20,000 budget from the city, along with funds it raises on its own. The city also provides office space for Heart of Biddeford on Main Street.

Bennett said the national model for main street programs that Heart of Biddeford follows requires a portion of the funding to come from the city. Bennett said until city council changes its mind the city will continue to present budgets with funding for Heart of Biddeford; $7,500 of the Downtown Improvement District budget is earmarked for Heart of Biddeford.

Durkin said he spoke with City Planner Greg Tansley about the possibility of installing tables at the new river walk site. Durkin said the proposed tables would cost $1,000 each and the commission could use the bulk of its remaining budget to purchase two of them. Durkin said he would speak with Tansley after the meeting about the logistics of the RiverWalk tables.

Durkin said he doesn’t know where the group is headed. He said he’s been involved in the past because of a personal desire to help and see the area improve. He said he’s written to legislators before about grant money he’s found on his own for improvement projects in Biddeford that included Timber Point and Clifford Park.

“The government can’t do it all by themselves,” Durkin said. “We can make a difference, we can make input.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson news@inthecourier.com

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