2017-04-21 / Front Page

Biddeford eyes downtown development district designation

By ALAN BENNETT
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Officials in Biddeford are in the beginning stages of designating the city’s downtown area as a downtown development district, as part of their continued efforts to bolster economic activity in the city center.

Mayor Alan Casavant informed the Biddeford City Council on April 4 that he and City Manager Jim Bennett had been meeting with downtown business owners to get input and discuss the proposal’s potential.

Development districts are defined by state statute as areas within municipalities to be developed under specific programs designed to provide new employment opportunities while retaining existing employment, broaden the tax base and create an aesthetically pleasing and safe downtown environment.

Casavant said the planned district is modeled after what other cities, specifically Portland and Bangor, have done to improve the quality of their downtown areas.

“Essentially what it does is it provides services and wants to a designated area that goes beyond what the city typically and normally does,” Casavant said Wednesday.

Much like Portland’s own Business Improvement District, Portland Downtown, a development district in Biddeford would be independently-staffed by a board of directors who, working with business owners and community organizations, would raise and allocate funds for purposes in the downtown.

That includes sponsoring events in addition to finding ways to improve the downtown core.

Although Biddeford already has nonprofit organizations sponsoring citywide events, such as Main Street Maine organization Heart of Biddeford, a downtown development district differs in the way funds are allocated and projects are carried out.

“From my understanding a Downtown Improvement District would differ from HOB in that it would solely be funded by taxes generated from the downtown business owners, and they would have 100 percent of the say in how those funds are used,” said Delilah Poupore, executive director of the organization. 

“(The district) could choose to pay the city, a private contractor, or an organization like HOB to do any of the programs/projects that they fund,” she said, adding that, while HOB has no official stance on the proposed district, HOB would “be happy” to assist with any of its goals.

The city of Biddeford would largely be uninvolved in the district’s affairs, Casavant said, aside from the program’s first year, during which the city would have to budget money to establish the district.

“In the first year, the city would heavily subsidize this so the process could be weaned in. … The board of directors would determine how much money they want to raise,” he said.

But the city first has to gain support from those who would be directly affected by the district’s establishment: business owners and taxpayers.

“The city has no intention to do this unilaterally. Members of the district are going to have to see the benefits and want this, also,” Casavant said. “If the merchants feel that this is a great idea, we have to make it part of the budget now, and then after the fact they’d be responsible for picking their board of directors.”

That means time is running out to start on the project, which Casavant said has garnered mixed reviews from those involved.

To establish the downtown district, building owners within the district would be assessed an extra 49 cents in taxes, said Casavant, although he stressed the initial funding would trickle back down to the taxpayers.

“The 49 cent increase, which could still change, would go into activities or programming or amenities that (residents) want themselves, not the city,” he said. “The city would collect funds on taxation on the district, then give the money back to them.”

But Casavant also said that, if it’s not the time to implement a downtown district, “then the idea is moot.”

“The idea will not be part of the budget” in that case, he said. “Or (building owners) may say, ‘We like the idea, but might want less of an assessment.’ That could happen too.”

The ultimate goal of a downtown district, Casavant said, is to increase the number of amenities available to residents, business owners and those traveling through.

Such amenities, he said, could be “anything,” from flowers to beautify the downtown; better benches, walkways or lighting to improve accessibility; or the addition of more workers to clean up the city’s streets.

“It would go beyond what the city normally does,” Casavant said, adding the city does a “lousy” job in providing for the downtown.

“There’s all these things and all these wants and surprisingly there’s no money for it. You have to prioritize and what often gets pushed back to the backburner is amenities,” he said. 

Despite potential tax increases and uncertainty surrounding the district’s implementation, some are optimistic about the potential for its development.

Julian Schlaver, co-owner of store Suger, located in the downtown, and the Angelrox clothing brand, said he was initially concerned and skeptical of Biddeford establishing a downtown development district, but has come around to the idea.

“It creates a framework and structure for continual improvement and maintenance of the area and is the best way for the community to move forward,” said Schlaver, who also serves on the city’s Downtown Development Commission. “It will focus resources and energy in the downtown and in combination with a parking garage I believe we will see fantastic results for this amazing town and quickly.”

Creation of a development district would be only one of several recently-implemented programs intended to bring Biddeford into a new age of economic prosperity, including the recent decision to hire a firm to design a downtown parking structure within the city's mill district in hopes of drawing larger employers and more shoppers to the area.

Also, in February, the City Council gave final approval to a downtown anti-blight ordinance intended to encourage downtown development, preserve property values and promote public health.

And currently, the city’s Economic Development Department is funding a Facade Improvement Program, with a total of $50,000 for grants of up to $15,000 each to qualified applicants who wish to make external facade improvements to their downtown commercial buildings.

The premise of the program is to update buildings located in the downtown area that are, for whatever reason, classified as slum and blight. Grants can be used to improve awnings, storefronts, historical restorations, wall improvements, exterior lighting and more.

Building owners who apply for and receive program funds are required to update their buildings within one year of award.

Applications began being accepted on Tuesday, and are available on a first-come-first-serve basis on the city’s website at biddefordmaine.org/economicdevelopment.

Casavant said the time is now to invest in Biddeford’s downtown, as the city continues to draw people looking for a quieter, though still vibrant, city to call home.

“Essentially, this is an idea, a proposal, that is not cast in stone. We are never going to implement unless the affected parties (most) believe in it. There has to be something good and positive for them,” he said. “The downtown defines who we are a community.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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