2017-08-03 / Front Page

More interest sought for new downtown district

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Downtown Improvement District could soon become a reality, but city officials have more questions to answer before anything is finalized.

A group of 11 people met with City Manager Jim Bennett and Mayor Alan Casavant in the Heart of Biddeford office on Main Street to better understand what the purpose of the district would be and how property owners might take full advantage of it.

The soonest downtown property owners could see a tax increase is July 2018. The district will not become official until a board is formed, decides on by-laws and it is approved by the city council. Executive Director of Heart of Biddeford Delilah Poupore sent an email to 65 property and business owners in the downtown as well as posted the meeting information on the Heart of Biddeford Facebook page. In attendance were Poupore, Paul Deschambault, Mark Nahorney, Josh Corbeau, Doug Sanford, Seth Harkness, Amy Bates, Kim Roseberry, Julian Schlaver, Tammy Ackerman and David Flood.

The Downtown Improvement District would allow downtown property owners on the organization’s board to allocate money for improvement projects downtown that fall into the categories of marketing, events, beautification and cleaning. Funding would come from a set tax the board would agree on. The expected tax during the first transitional year would be 49 cents per $1,000 of value on top of every downtown property owner’s tax bill. Bennett is looking for between six and nine business and property owners willing to be on the board, hopefully before Dec. 31.

Prior to July 1 the city spent $45,511 on flower planters and upkeep along Main Street in an effort to show residents and property owners the kinds of projects that would be possible with district funds. In the coming fiscal year the city allocated $92,241 into additional services for the downtown: $34,241 for year round wages and benefits, $17,500 for part-time wages, $25,500 for plantings, $10,000 for donations to events and $5,000 for promotions and marketing.

Paul Deschambault, owner of Saco Bay Property Management, isn’t sure downtown property owners are ready to absorb the additional cost of the district tax, expected to take place sometime in 2018 if the district is approved. He said budgets are a daily concern of property owners and rates for water and utilities have increased. Deschambault liked the concept of business owners having a say in how money is spent downtown, but didn’t feel enough people were attending the meetings to provide the proper insight.

“The city of Biddeford is better prepared to handle this than us,” he said.

Another meeting will take place sometime next week; anyone interested in attending should contact Poupore.

Bennett said the city is funding the pilot program for the next year so people have an opportunity to get used to the idea.

“I think this group knows how to market downtown and can advertise using the money appropriately,” he said, adding that he thinks property owners are in the best position to make decisions about downtown.

Kim Roseberry, owner of 116 Main St., which houses Forever Fit and residential units, wants to better understand what services the city already provides and what additional services district funds could cover.

Bennett gave the example of plowing in the winter. He said public works crews plow streets the morning after a big storm, but it’s the responsibility of property owners to remove snow from in front of their doorways and sidewalks. District funds could pay for someone to arrive before the city and clear sidewalks downtown. Bennett said the city’s focus during winter is to make sure children can walk to school safely.

“The downtown isn’t a priority as it relates to winter sidewalks, your group can make the decision to purchase something additional,” he said.

Amy Bates, owner of Paul’s Variety, said she opens at 5 a.m. and last winter a pile of snow prevented her from opening the front door.

“I pay a truck every month to haul it away and it’s not cheap,” she said.

Julian Schlaver, co-owner of Angelrox, said he had to remove three feet of snow in front of his store last Valentine’s Day. He feels business owners are more likely to move to Portland where they will clean sidewalks after a storm more quickly.

“Other communities with more foot traffic already figured this out,” he said. “Why choose Biddeford if the services come with more taxes?”

Bennett will draft a list of existing services covered by the city so property owners can better understand what they might want to pay for above and beyond those.

Bennett hopes the board can be a blend of business and property owners able to work together. Anyone interested in serving on the board should contact Bennett.

“I and members of the city team can be the staff to help facilitate that dialogue,” he said.

Casavant said it’s not the city’s intention to pick the pockets of downtown property owners. He understands tax dollars are valuable but thinks this is an opportunity to take downtown Biddeford to another level. Casavant hopes for a partnership between the city and property owners as well as an open dialogue.

“We don’t know what’s coming, but let’s at least talk and see what might come,” he said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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