Bridgton to take another shot at ‘friendly’ business status

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. To be business friendly, that is.

After being turned down last year in its bid to become state-certified as a Business Friendly Community, Bridgton will be applying again — but not until next spring, when the Depot Street Streetscape project is completed.

At Tuesday’s Bridgton Board of Selectmen meeting, Director of Planning, Economic and Community Development Anne Krieg recommended waiting, so Bridgton can show that it’s putting its Tax Increment Financing revenue to good use. Around $98,000 in TIF funds have been approved to help fund the estimated $378,000 construction on Depot Street, which had been planned for this fall but got put off when the bid came in way over budget.

A major reason Bridgton’s Business Friendly Community application to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development got turned down last year was because it said nothing about how the revenue from the TIF zone was being utilized. DECD Commissioner George Gervais also cited a lack of programs and/or projects related to customer service/product/capacity, and nothing specific on how the town is partnering with the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation.

Krieg said Bridgton’s chances of being named Business Friendly would rise significantly when the town can show how it has used the TIF funding. The Depot Street project marks the first time the TIF fund has been tapped since the district was created about 10 years ago.

Cold water got thrown on Krieg’s recommendations, however, when Selectman Bob McHatton said, “What’s the point?” He said “To be honest with you, I don’t see a big benefit from it.”

Four communities — South Portland, Belfast, Caribou and Herman — were certified Business Friendly by the DECD in July of 2013, bringing to 22 the total number of towns and cities on the list. None of the communities are in western Maine. Krieg said those communities are entitled to use the designation in their marketing to attract new businesses and customers, and are given road signs to post at its gateways.

Another advantage may arise in terms of applying for grants, although “they haven’t surfaced” to date, she said. “It’s hard to pinpoint the rate of return on the investment,” said Krieg, which essentially only involves the staff time to prepare the application.

Selectman Doug Taft disagreed with McHatton’s opinion on the program. “Just because the state isn’t doing anything now, it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future,” he said.

Selectman Ken Murphy said he initiated conversation with Krieg about reapplying for the certification after realizing the town’s July 2013 letter of denial “has been just sitting here — and that got me fired up.”

Murphy said that when he was president of the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, he repeatedly ran into the perception by newcomers to town that Bridgton was not business friendly. Years ago, when the mills were thriving, he said, the opposite perception about Bridgton prevailed.

“Somehow or other, we lost all that new pizazz when the mills went out,” Murphy said. With the recent influx of new entrepreneurs basing their businesses in Bridgton, he said, it’s critical to change any negative perceptions about Bridgton’s embrace of businesses.

McHatton wasn’t convinced.

“I’d be more impressed if we were a business friendly state than I am with that (Business Friendly Community) sign,” he said.



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