BEDC switches focus from ‘economic’ to ‘community’ development

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

The Bridgton Economic Development Committee voted Tuesday to ask selectmen if it can change its name to the Bridgton Community Development Committee, and accepted the resignation of chairman Lee Eastman, who is now serving as chairman of the newly-formed Bridgton Economic Development Corporation.

“This is a really exciting time for this committee,” said Alan Manoian, director of the town’s office of Community and Economic Development. “We are ready for this committee to transition” to its role as an appointed board serving to support the many projects being undertaken by the BECD office, including development of an updated Comprehensive Plan, working on a form-based code for the downtown district and possibly also a new effort to begin work immediately on creating a comprehensive land use ordinance in time for voters to decide on Nov. 8.

“You will be the ‘connective tissue’ on community development issues,” he told members. “We need an entity that the citizens can plug into” as the BECD office oversees the planning efforts of various committees over the next nine months. “Economic development is pretty well covered by my office and the work of the corporation,” Manoian said.

Members also embraced the name change, as recommended by Manoian and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, as a way to avoid confusion among residents about what roles each of the three entities will play as economic development plans move forward in town.

The economic development committee was formed around 2004 or 2005 to work on implementing the recommendations in the comprehensive plan. The new public benefit economic development corporation will focus on “filling in the void” in terms of business-to-business relationships and how the town can work to attract and support new business growth — leaving the committee to work on projects that more directly serve the needs of taxpayers, such as ordinance revisions and community-based infrastructure improvements.

“The corporation is important because of the people (who serve on its board),” said Manoian. “We broke it out into sectors of economic influence, like health care, banking, industry” and asked people who are “at the apex of their professional careers, and have good sound relationships you can call upon.”

The committee, on the other hand, said Manoian, will aid his role as a certified urban planner, as the town works to update its ordinances and regulations to reflect the Bridgton brand. “They’re saying there’s a disconnect between the comprehensive plan and the site plan review ordinance,” said Manoian, referring to a citizen’s initiative to ban big box stores and fast food restaurants that will be voted on next Tuesday. “Well, planning is community development.”

Eastman said that when the comprehensive plan was written, there was “a lot of good intent” but “no way to hold anyone accountable for all the recommendations that were made.” Now that the corporation is in place, the committee can make sure that there is follow-through on planning recommendations.

Committee member Dee Miller, also a planning board member, said the planning board has done the best it could to make ordinance changes while also having the responsibility of reviewing projects as they come down the pike. She pointed to the tower ordinance and the sign ordinance as two examples.

“There’s a limit to what the planning board can do. It’s role is not to plan, it’s to see that the ordinances are followed,” she said. Eastman agreed, saying it’s hard to play the role of being judicial while also writing policy.

“I think you got a bad rap,” said member Mike Tarantino, referring to public criticism of the planning board’s role in the lack of updating of the town’s site plan review ordinance.

Miller said she’d love to see the committee work with the Lakes Environmental Association on such projects as a Stevens Brook riverwalk through the downtown and moving the town gazebo to a more prominent location.

Manoian said the riverwalk is “a massive project that someone needs to take leadership on.” Another is designing sidewalk improvements along Portland Road with a $10,000 planning grant the town currently has, waiting to be used.

“The (Maine Department of Transportation) says we need to hold big public meetings to design the sidewalk system, to meet the rules of the Safe Routes to School program,” Manoian said, suggesting that the committee could take a leadership role on that project.

Member Chuck Renneker said the committee “needs to be given some authority” by selectmen to do such things as set up subcommittees and reach out to the budget committee, planning board and comprehensive planning committee. “At times, the committee’s going to need funding to accomplish its work,” he said.

Member Ray Turner said that with all the pressure for ordinance revisions in town now, “If we wait for the comprehensive plan until 2012 that’s unacceptable to me.” Along with committee members Tarantino, Renneker and Mark Lopez, who are also part of Citizens For Responsible Growth, Turner said he’s written to the planning board asking them to support a recommendation to selectmen that a new Committee on Land Use Regulation be formed to fast-track revisions to the site plan review ordinance in time to be voted on this Nov. 8.

“In order to make changes we need more power, so we can speed things up,” said Tarantino. “(Selectmen) have got to give us a little more latitude” so the committee doesn’t have to go to them every time a decision needs to be made.

Eastman said the hallmark of a successful business is “being able to turn on a dime” to meet changing needs of the marketplace, and that the town of Bridgton is in that position now as it seeks to move forward after the big box/fast food bans are decided on March 1.

The committee voted to spend time at its next meeting on March 7 defining its purpose and the kind of authority it wishes to have, and to give that recommendation to selectmen, along with the request for the name change.

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