Economic corp. eyes conflicts, defines role

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

One of their first formal votes raised the specter of conflict of interest as members of the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation sought to clarify their role Tuesday in its partnership with the town’s office of Economic and Community Development, the local chamber and the Economic Development Committee.

It was about board insurance. Chairman Lee Eastman had gotten quotes from Chalmers Insurance, the local agency, and sought a motion.

Member Woody Woodward asked if the insurance ought to be put out to bid. “I’ve already been getting a lot of scrutiny” from residents questioning how he will separate his role as a board member while also serving as a selectman. “I’m sitting in two seats and I’m scared to death.”

Woodward later said his answer will be simple. Wherever he’s sitting at the time, that is where the focus of his concerns will be. A local leader must often learn how to wear many hats.

The corporation, meeting as it happened in Chalmers Insurance’s conference room at the invitation of board member Liz Marcella, a Chalmers broker, voted to put the insurance out to bid. As a private non-profit corporation, they were not bound to do so, as member Mark Lopez, developer of the Bridgton McDonald’s, pointed out. But Woodward, owner of the Highland Lake Resort, cautioned members that there could be major negative consequences if the public perceived that any one of them was acting out of a motivation for personal financial gain in their service as corporation board members.

Lopez has his own balancing act to perform. He, along with Lee Eastman, corporation chairman, also serves on the town’s Economic Development Committee. Lopez owns other development property besides the McDonald’s site along the hot growth Route 302 corridor, where the prospect of more national chain store development has forced a March 1 citizen’s initiative vote to ban big box stores over 30,000 square feet and all fast-food, formula-type chain restaurants.

Lopez is spearheading a counter-effort to the citizen petition called Citizens For Responsible Growth. In the past few days he’s collected names of 50 Bridgton businesses opposed to passage of the two referendum questions. He paid for an ad in this week’s Bridgton News to announce their names, and the group has created a Facebook page.

As a commercial real estate developer, he became a member of the economic development committee a few years ago while a non-resident; Bridgton does not require residency for members of town-appointed committees, just a desire to serve. He moved to Highland Point a month ago, although he’s been a taxpayer in town for 15 years.

When Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz arrived in April of 2006, the comprehensive plan needed implementing. “At that time the economic development committee was one of the critical committees we needed to resuscitate,” Berkowitz said. Lopez sat in on committee meetings for months before being invited to join by Planning Board member Gordon Davis.

“The overwhelming sentiment I’ve gotten (in soliciting businesses to oppose the referendum) is that this town needs to grow in order for their businesses to grow,” Lopez said. McDonald Motors owner Bill McDonald, who signed the citizen’s petition, is among several business people who have changed their minds and now think the big box and fast food bans will hurt Bridgton’s economy. Tom Churches, owner of the Bridgton Shipping Store, is another.

Eastman asked members at Tuesday’s meeting if they wanted to take a stand on the March 1 referendum. “I have no problem going down that road,” he said. As a BEDC member, he recalled meetings arising out of passage of the comprehensive plan, at which Lopez brought in slides depicting examples of both good and bad national chain store development, and size comparisons of an average Wal-Mart store and the local Hannaford’s supermarket.

“Only one person was concerned about zoning. What everybody emphasized was that we wanted responsible development,” Eastman said. The bans proposed by resident Scott Finlayson and others won’t work, he said, because they attempt to “pigeonhole” national chain development and thus look like an attack against developers.

Woodward said Finlayson deserves “kudos” for calling out the need for good, responsible zoning, the kind based on form-based codes as promoted by BECD Director Alan Manoian. Such zoning sets the standards architecturally and supports an inclusive atmosphere for all kinds of development, co-existing side by side.

Woodward’s motion to not support both referendum questions passed unanimously, with an addendum that the corporation instead supports efforts aimed at “sustainable, creative, comprehensive and controlled growth.” He said national franchises are a much more sustainable type of development than individually-owned businesses, which have a year-out failure rate of between 60 and 75%.

“Franchises are the way of the future,” Woodward said. Allowing them doesn’t mean they have to look like every other chain store in other towns and cities. “That’s where form-based codes come in.”

Berkowitz said the role of the corporation should be seen as that of providing “a fourth leg of the stool” of economic growth efforts, “to make it stable.” He pointed out that as a non-profit, the corporation can apply for community-based grant funding from the Kendall and Anna Ham Charitable Foundation — while the town cannot. Under their Internal Revenue Service certification as a private non-profit, the corporation “has every right to buy properties,” even if they are out of town.

“In some cases, you’ll be the advocates” when it comes to financing economic development projects. It’s the P3 (public-private partnership) approach to doing economic development nationwide,” Berkowitz said.

Manoian said the economic development committee will be going through “a re-examination” of its role at its next meeting on Monday, Feb. 21. “I see them working more with the planning board and the board of selectmen” to advise them on such issues as ordinance revisions and capital improvement projects supporting economic growth in town.

When Bridgton’s previous economic development corporation was formed to bring in Malden Mills and Sebago Moc, it was one of the first regional economic development corporations in the state. “We need to step up and rejoin the statewide community of economic development corporations. We were one of the founders and now we’re here, rediscovering it.”

While their meetings, held on the third Tuesday of each month at 4 p.m., are public, there will at times be the need to go into executive session as specific development deals are discussed in detail, Berkowitz said.

“It’s a new tool and people are wary” of it, acknowledged Berkowitz. Under their IRS certification, the corporation has every right to buy and sell properties, even if they are located out of town, he added. But the partnership relationship with the town is key: some larger towns and cities even have the corporation’s office located in the town office.

Just don’t ask them to change their name, said member Skip Sullivan, a retired auto industry executive. Let the economic development committee worry about that if they want to, he said.

“We have to deal with the IRS,” Sullivan said. The IRS recently wrote Manoian’s office, asking the corporation to clarify their mission of providing economic benefit, as well as have each member sign a conflict of interest statement before finalizing their 501-3C status.

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