2017-11-09 / Front Page

One DT group done, another to be formed

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – One mayor-appointed downtown group will present its findings in front of the city council and most likely disband, while a different, controversial one is yet to be formed.

Downtown Task Force members were appointed by the mayor and city council May 3, 2016 and originally intended to work until March 2017. The committee’s last meeting was Thursday, Nov. 2. All members plan to attend the next city council meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 9, to present a Downtown Action Plan. Members include Chairman Bruce Benway, Steve Beaudette, Pete Lamontagne, Delilah Poupore, Mark Robinson, Julian Schlaver, Bill Southwick and Brad Favreau.

Task force members began by reviewing parking garage studies for the downtown and surveying possible locations. The committee made recommendations regarding the parking garage in January. The task force recommended a parking structure be built at either 3 Lincoln St., the former Maine Energy Recovery Co. property, or on lot D/E next to Pepperell Building 10 and Lincoln Mill. City council has already spoken with Desman Associates, a transportation planning company with nine national offices, about these two sites, before the report was given to the council Thursday. The Downtown Action Plan states 3 Lincoln St. is favorable because the city already owns it, it’s close to the RiverWalk and would require little initial site work. However it is further from Main Street and could create traffic problems on Elm Street. Lot D/E is closer to the downtown and has a high projected property valuation increase. But the city does not own Lot D/E and York Street, which would have to be used as an entrance, is also privately owned.

Members also discussed how to attract more businesses to Main Street, such as retail and restaurants, as well as beautification efforts that recently took place. This spring the city spent about $27,500 to place more than 100 planters and hanging baskets along Main Street. Further recommendations include completing the RiverWalk and nurturing art in public spaces.

Final conversations among committee members revolved around defining the boundaries of downtown and where gateways could be placed to signify and enhance those boundaries. Gateways could be literal arched gates across city streets or as simple as changing the appearance of signs in various sections of the city. The report lists possible downtown gateways on Elm Street at the Saco city line, Elm Street at the railway overpass, Main Street at Elm Street, South Street at Elm Street, Alfred Street at Birch Street, Pool Street at Hill Street and Water Street at Main Street.

Julian Schlaver, co-owner of Angelrox, which is located downtown, will show a power point presentation before the city council along with Mark Robinson of Robinson Public Relations. Schlaver said he enjoyed his time on the task force and hopes it will lead to positive change within the city.

“It was a really wide-ranging but productive set of conversations,” Schlaver said. “It was a great opportunity for city staff to also get a read on the priorities and opinions of various representatives of the community.”

Schlaver is also a member of the Downtown Development Commission and has participated in conversations regarding the implementation of a Downtown Improvement District, which will raise taxes on downtown properties to pay for additional services that include beautification, cleaning efforts, marketing and activities. The initial tax increase would be 49 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value and could be implemented as soon as next summer. Schlaver sees much growth in the area between the proposed Lincoln Mill project and the development planned for Saco Island East, and hopes collaboration within the downtown can continue.

“At this phase we need to come up with a rational plan for parking,” Schlaver said. “That process involves going through plans and studies and taking stock of where we are in terms of progress. In light of the growth we’ve experienced over the past few years, it’s a great feeling when a community goes through some of these thoughtful processes and sees the positive impact of progress. Following through on recommendations from these reports helped create the progress we’ve seen and will continue to do so in the future.”

Downtown Task Force members invited Downtown Development Commission Chairman Bill Durkin to comment on the final report before it was presented to the city council. Durkin said he was initially skeptical about the action plan because it seemed to resemble the open space plan published in November 2012. The open space plan catalogued and made recommendations for public and privately owned undeveloped land in the city of Biddeford. However Durkin was satisfied with the task force’s final product.

“It’s an exciting document for downtown,” he said. “It addresses the major concerns and happenings of downtown. Everybody is in the same boat trying to make things better for downtown, improve the quality of life and lower the burden on tax payers.”

Schlaver hopes the Downtown Development Commission can continue the work of the task force. He also said the Downtown Improvement District would be another chance for the community to collaborate. While not a property owner himself, a tax increase would affect Schlaver as a downtown business owner.

“I can’t say I don’t support the Downtown Improvement District,” Schlaver said. “I think it’s a first step to an open dialogue with specific property owners. The Downtown Development Commission could be more of a voice of, let’s say, the business and professional community in the downtown. The Heart of Biddeford is a great voice of residents and community members. The three different constituents are really important and having a structured way for people to communicate, get information and work on a project is awesome. If those different organizations can work together then a lot can be done.”

Heart of Biddeford is a quasi-municipal nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the downtown. Delilah Poupore, Heart of Biddeford’s executive director, said the group’s biggest challenge was avoiding topics that had already been addressed, such as the Downtown Master Plan published in 2011. That plan, among many things, outlined a series of visions and goals related to the downtown.

“It was great to see all of us, after all this time, really land on the same page with each other about what we suggested are the key initiatives for the city of focus on regarding downtown,” she said. “These suggestions to the city could be helpful in getting Biddeford ready for the development coming right ahead of us.”

Now that her work with the task force has finished, Poupore planned to send an invitation to property owners in the downtown for informational sessions with city staff. regarding the Downtown Improvement District. She expected the information sessions to take place during the first two weeks of December. Josh Corbeau, Kim Roseberry, Seth Harkness, David Flood and Julian Schlaver are all part of a working group to help implement the district.

“Ideas for forming the Downtown Improvement District need to come from property owners,” Poupore said.

Not all property owners are in favor of the tax increase, however. Grady Sexton, owner of Grady’s Radio and Satellite TV, said his property taxes increased from $7,300 to just over $9,000 because his building was assessed at a higher value and he’s not interested in paying any more.

“I would attend an information session,” he said. “As it is I have no desire to participate in the Downtown Improvement District. With tax increases this year I have no choice but to pass it on to my tenants. I’ve never increased taxes a penny. This year I have to because I can’t afford to keep eating the tax increases.”

Sexton owns apartments on Alfred and Foss streets. He plans to wait until the first of the year before raising rent, to avoid doing so during the holidays. He said raising taxes is not the way to attract more businesses to Biddeford.

“If I lose tenants I’m not going to lower the price, so I’ll see what happens,” he said. “Somebody has to give and I’m not the one controlling it.”

Contact staff writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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