BEDC taking back seat on Memorial School project

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The Bridgton Economic Development Corporation will be waiting in the wings to see if another entity steps forward to act as a third party on the cleanup of the former Memorial School property.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz announced the "back seat" approach at the last selectmen's meeting. He paraphrased a Jan. 27 letter from the BEDC on the subject as follows:

“What they’re going to do is take a back seat, and if in fact no other parties step forward in the process that has been established to assist with the Memorial School cleanup and redevelopment, they in turn will then review that and potentially be available and offer their service as an outside third party to do just what the other parties would not do, and that is to assist the town in its cleanup effort."

The cleanup, which likely will include demolition of the vacant school building, is expected to cost at least $300,000, and will only occur after voters have agreed to take over the property from the SAD 61 School District. The decision will be made at Town Meeting this June. Under state law for use of Brownfield site cleanup money, a third party must assume ownership during the cleanup phase.

"Obviously, they (the BEDC) don’t have $300,000, they’re not even offering that," Berkowitz said. "But they’re positioning themselves to assist the town, should no other party be available.”

In its letter to Selectman Chairman Doug Taft, BEDC President Skip Sullivan acknowledged that the third party role for the Memorial School redevelopment was the primary focus when the nonprofit was formed in 2010. However, the letter stated, at the time of incorporation, "the vision included the potential re-use of the property as an incubator site to encourage professional and industrial growth within the town."

Since then, a consensus has emerged through two public visioning sessions that leans much more in the direction of redevelopment for community use. Some have even proposed building a new community center there. At the same time, the relationship between the BEDC and the town has been in limbo, in the wake of voters' decision last year not to grant its request for $21,500 in town funds to help with its marketing efforts.

The BEDC letter said it has "gone through may evolutionary steps" since its formation, including a restructuring of its board and working with a new economic development director. The corporation has also been "attempting to fill empty storefronts, which made the demarcation between the BEDC and the chamber less clear."

In the letter, Sullivan said that "As the BEDC matures, we recognize that our main objective has to be to bring 'primary' jobs to Bridgton and the region, i.e., jobs that pay a living wage, provide full-time employment and generally come with benefits. Such businesses pay taxes, consume goods and services from the local community, and many of their employees are local residents who also pay taxes and shop locally."

The letter continued:

"We believe the best ultimate use of the memorial school parcel is development by a private entity which would pay taxes, employ local residents and thereby generally improve the overall tax base of the time. If such a private concern is not found, then the site should be developed by a nonprofit group using funding that is not tax based.

"By doing so, no additional burden is placed on the taxpayers of Bridgton. The intent of the letter is to reinforce the original founding concept that the BEDC be available as a potential third party for the Memorial School project. As a 501(c)(3) corporation formed for the betterment of Bridgeton, we would be willing to be the responsible party to take possession of the parcel, manage its Brownfield cleanup, and upon completion return it to the town in a manner equitable to both parties. This would allow the town to market the parcel free of any concerns over environmental issues. Should you or your fellow selectmen want to discuss this option further, the beat EDC board would make itself available at a mutual convenient time."

Berkowitz's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $20,000 for the BEDC. On Jan. 15, the Budget Committee tabled a decision on whether to leave that money intact, as they wanted to know what the funds would be used for. The committee's minutes state that Selectman Bob McHatton "told the board that after the town rejected (the funding), the BEDC sent a letter disassociating themselves with the town of Bridgton, and that there were no voting members on their board representing the town."

Budget Committee member Greg Jones said that, "If in fact they have cut ties from the town of Bridgton, then they should have been listed under Outside Agency Services" and not as part of the town's budget for economic development.

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