2016-07-28 / Neighbors

Watchdog group targets slate of people, organizations

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A group of residents has filed more than 20 Maine Freedom of Access Act requests with the city to get information about how much city money is directed toward nonprofit organizations and how that money is spent. Craig Cantara, who founded the group, Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, said the group is now in an information gathering stage.

Among the subjects of the group's FOAA requests are residents Tammy Ackerman, David Flood, Rep. Martin Grohman, his former company, Correct Buildings LLC, and Heart of Biddeford.

One of the requests from the group asked for copies of all communication to or from any city employees that directly or indirectly discuss economic development from March 1, 2011 through present day.

City Solicitor Keith Jacques rejected that request, saying it was too broad and that almost everything the city does is related to economic development.

Howard Hanson, one of the eight founding members of the group, said the group is working on narrowing down some of its requests to get more specific information. Residents Matt Lauzon and Steve Martin also compose the founding membership.

“The city budget was passed and a lot of people were kind of disappointed in the process that was used to pass it, but even aside from that, a number of us are concerned with the amount of money Biddeford is getting in grants,” Hanson said. “We would like more information about how the grants are spent.”

Hanson said groups such as Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization organization, and Engine, an arts organization located downtown, are benefiting from city funds.

Last year, Flood received $3,000 toward a $6,000 project to fund a mural on 265 Main St. as part of the city's Main Street Makeover project to improve facades downtown. Engine, an arts organization located downtown, was also approved for $15,000 from Main Street Makeover to fund demolition of the interior and design and rehabilitation of the former Reny's building at 129 Main St., but only received $6,000 of those funds for approved work. The building is currently unoccupied and the nonprofit has been planning for several years to renovate it for multipurpose use such as entertainment, studios, education, retail, residential and community gatherings. The Main Street Makeover was a facade improvement program which the city allocated $60,000 for in 2014.

Hanson said the group consists of the eight members and has been meeting in private homes. However, the group is planning to meet in public venues and invite residents to join.

“Hopefully, the thing that we're going to have to get is some accountability from the city. That would be a major step,” Hanson said. “Accountability in the budget process, how the money is being spent and at the same time, if you have accountability, you can get much better direction from the citizens on what the money is being spent on.

“If it goes to organizations like Heart of Biddeford, we don't know what they're spending it on. We don't know what has come of the other organizations the city has dished out money to spend. That's an important piece because it fits into the whole thing downtown.”

Heart of Biddeford received $17,000 from the city in 2009 and $20,000 each year from 2010 to 2016. For this year's budget, the group asked the city for $30,000. Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, told the Courier in a previous interview that general allocations from the city helped the organization with its operating costs and were not targeted for any specific programs.

“I'm aware of those (FOAA) requests and people's rights to look into them,” Poupore said. “People have a right to look into what concerns them.”

Cantara thinks the city is engaging in discriminatory processes to favor businesses downtown instead of supporting businesses in the city as a whole. He cited Steer N Stein, the restaurant that received loans totaling $125,000 from the Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation, as an example. The restaurant's owner, Peter Powers, spent the loan money but never opened the restaurant and is now being sued by both the corporation and the city. Of the loan amount, $20,000 was contributed by the city.

“It's not the city's place to kick in for winners and losers in Biddeford,” Cantara said, “and certainly not to give to a restaurant downtown to compete with a restaurant on Route 1 where a family had to use all their own money.”

Hanson said he believes the city also provides inkind services, such as research and access to city staff and offices, to Heart of Biddeford and other groups it supports.

The city provides office space on Main Street to Heart of Biddeford for free, which former finance director Curt Koehler had valued at $6,000 per year as an in-kind contribution.

“(The city) brags because they have created 100 jobs downtown, but how many hundreds of thousands of dollars have they spent on RiverWalk, River Jam and Heart of Biddeford?” Cantara said. “The question is, we want to know the value of the dollar, the return of the investments. They fought harder to stop the racino from coming in than to stop Nissen from moving out.”

Flood said he is not concerned about the group's FOAA requests, which requested communications from the city about his property at 265 Main St.

“I have no idea what they're looking for but I'm not embarrassed or concerned about it,” Flood said. “I feel like they're looking for a smoking gun. I don't know what they're doing, not sure what they're looking for, but they're looking for something.”

Flood said there was no impropriety in using city funds to partially pay for the mural on the outside of his building.

“The whole reason for the facade improvement program is to improve facades,” Flood said. “We weren't trying to hide it, we weren't treated as special. We said what we were going to do and presented a drawing of what it looked like. It wouldn't be something I ever hushed up or was trying to hide … It's not some big revelation that, 'OK, now everyone found out.'”

Cantara questions why, after several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in public grants, the former Reny’s building at 129 Main St. still remains undeveloped. Engine received a $100,000 Brownfields grant, which is federally administered, to clean asbestos and lead from the building.

Ackerman, who came to Biddeford in 2005, said she did not want to comment on the FOAA requests or why the group was seeking information about her relationship with the city.

In 2010, Ackerman founded Engine, a nonprofit, which, according to its mission statement, aims to “foster and integrate the arts and design, education and sustainable creative entrepreneurialism as an explicit community value and civic priority in Biddeford.”

Ackerman, Engine’s executive director, is also program director for Maine FabLab, a fabrication laboratory that uses 3D printing.

Lauzon, a founding member of Concerned Citizens of Biddeford, is running as an Independent for state representative in House District 12 against Grohman, who is the Democratic incumbent. Grohman founded Correct Building Products LLC, a corporation that manufactured a wood and plastic composite deck product. The company filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 in the federal bankruptcy laws in 2009, and ended up being sold to GAF Decking Systems under the bankruptcy code's Section 363, which allows the company's assets to be sold free of liens and other claims.

“It's kind of like a pre-packaged bankruptcy, a way to keep the plant running through the entire process,” Grohman said. “2009 – that was a time when the stock market went down by 30 percent in one day, housing stock dropped. Correct Building Products LLC was a building construction business. It was a brutal time for that business, a lot of other Maine businesses didn't make it through.”

“I did that to save the company,” Grohman added. “I took an immense financial hit to do that. I converted my ownership into equity that funded that transition, so I got nothing, but all of my people came to work and kept their jobs.”

Cantara said the group is looking for information about whether Correct Building Products LLC received city funding because it is generally interested in how much money the city spent on a failed business, not because it has a personal campaign agenda against Grohman.

Grohman said he doesn't know why he and his former company are the subjects of the group's FOAA requests, and the company didn't receive any incentives or payments from the city.

The company did receive approximately $330,000 in loans from the Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation, Grohman said.

“It was all paid back. That's what (Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation) exists for,” he said.

During the 16 years that the decking materials have been manufactured in Biddeford, Grohman said more than $900,000 have been paid to the city in property taxes, approximately $20 million paid in payroll and around $2 million paid in income taxes and all other taxes associated with payroll.

“The city gets the benefit of there being an operating business here,” Grohman said. “I don't have anything to do with it anymore, but I'm proud of it.”

Cantara said the group is mainly concerned that the city is prejudicially allocating resources downtown over other areas of the city.

“They're trying to make it into the Old Port,” he said. “It's not going to happen.”

Flood said despite the FOAA requests about his interactions with the city, he has nothing against Concerned Citizens of Biddeford.

“I hope the group wants to improve downtown and Biddeford and if that's true, I'm all for it,” he said.

Grohman echoed those sentiments.

“People do want to make sure that tax dollars are being spent wisely and that's their right and I don't have any objections to that.”

The following correction was made after this story was published:

The Courier’s July 28 article, “Watchdog group targets slate of people, organizations,” should have stated that Engine, an arts organization located downtown, was approved for $15,000 from the city’s Main Street Makeover fund toward demolition of the interior and design and rehabilitation of the former Reny’s building at 129 Main St., but only received $6,000 of those funds for approved work.

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