Manoian reflects on his legacy

DELIVERING AS PROMISED — Bridgton Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian shows a page and a sketch from draft development standards for the Portland Road and Main Street that he delivered shortly before leaving Bridgton this week.

Editor’s note: Always enthusiastic, often controversial, Alan Manoian officially ended three and a half years as Bridgton’s Economic and Community Development Director this week. His open personality, can-do style and frenetic work ethic was both cheered and derided by Bridgtonians, unsure just how to respond to this cheerleading change agent from Lowell, Mass. in their midst.

Bridgton News Staff Writer Gail Geraghty caught up with him Tuesday, and transcribed and edited the following reflections on his major challenges and accomplishments.)

Passion, baby, yeah! “My very first time I drove down Main Street (months before Oct. 18, 2008, his first day on the job), I realized this town is a very special place, with exceptional potential. It has a very distinctive, unique feel to it. Having worked in larger metropolitan city environments, I wanted to have a good professional experience of doing planning and economic development in a small town. I can say that this will always be one of the most valuable and rewarding professional experiences of my career. In the city, it’s all about getting in and making it happen; small towns are more about letting it happen. Two very different dynamics. In small towns, whatever the community is seeking to achieve, it can’t be something you come in and force. Towns function on their own tempo, their own rhythm and their own timelines. You don’t go in and sort of lord it over. I’ve really come to appreciate and learn (that lesson) and improve upon (my style) as I go forward. I think it all can be contained in one word: patience and being exceedingly understanding. There are a lot of people that will look at my personality type — I don’t hide who I am —and I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as patient. This word, passion, is the one most people use to describe me. In the cities, they unleash that quality in me. But up here, I learned patience has to come first, that self-confident, enthusiasm, vision thing — you have to calibrate that down in a small town. Whoever has hired me, this is the role I have played. But it can be stressful. There are a lot of people who are going to say, ‘I don’t want anything to change.’ Cities are about change. Bridgton has helped me in a lot of ways. I hope I have been helpful to Bridgton; I think we both learned something from each other.”

The Great Recession, a game-changer. “Literally, almost the very week I started, the American economy collapsed. The world had ended, as we knew it. And I never once used the Great Recession as an excuse for why we didn’t have more big things happening. We knew that, in this region of rural Maine, it’s difficult to make it during the best of times. So, I did a full inventory analysis of the primary elements you need to attract corporations, light manufacturing interests and types of larger job-creation entities that everybody wants. And immediately, what stood out, was that Bridgton doesn’t have an abundant, skilled labor pool; it doesn’t have an abundant inventory of available quality middle-class housing. It has no zoning, which then raises the serious concern (if you’re a company) that I can’t manage the risk of my investment and is problematic in getting bank financing. Anything could be built next to them. And in terms of infrastructure, Bridgton needs a lot of improvement. But, now — if I don’t say this I’ll get crucified — I also realized there were great positive elements here. We do have a very dedicated, loyal, hard-working community base. It may not be the age demographic the companies want to see, but they’re here. People have said to me, ‘Alan, why do you say those mean things?’ And I say, ‘guys, this is business, this is serious business, and businesses are not sentimental.’ You can tell me about the lovely lakes and mountains, but that’s after you satisfy all of those elements up front. Then you can tell me the air is wonderful and there’s no traffic congestion here. So I saw how Bridgton could look at the recession not as a negative but as a huge opportunity, because everyone else right now is flat-lined. Everyone’s in the same boat. I could’ve wasted the next two years putting on nice suits and just played being the salesman of Bridgton, setting up luncheon meetings with commercial real estate brokers and schmoozing. But I realized it was the right time for Bridgton to go through its internal retooling.”

Building equity for the future. “So, instead of the sales pitch that says we’re all set, everything’s ready for you, we’re going to say, ‘Come to Bridgton, and be a part of our re-emergence.’ That’s exciting. It’s not changing Bridgton, it’s tapping back into that very dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative personality of Bridgton that was here before I got here, and will be here after I leave. And I built it on four pillars. The first was to organize the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation — a hugely important thing. We achieved that. Secondly: the demographics say there are no young people, but I met some of the most dynamic young professionals, the first year I was here. So, I proposed the Bridgton Young Professionals organization as the next leaders to be the vanguard of this. Before I came here, the term ‘young professional’ was never used in Bridgton. One of the proudest days of my time here was the day we got one of our young professionals (Justin McIver) and his story on the front page of Maine Biz magazine. I felt we were going to achieve our goals. But, again, this is about ‘letting’ things happen. They had their first few sessions, but for a variety of reasons, they all felt like it wasn’t time yet for them. The chemistry wasn’t right. But I am confident the day is going to come when these young professionals are going to achieve all they set out to do. Finally, (Bridgton Town Manager) Mitch (Berkowitz) and I and (then SAD 61 Supt.) Patrick Phillips put together a forum on educational achievement and economic attraction. We conducted two landmark sessions that included corporate business, municipal and local educational leaders, in addition to representatives from the Maine Department of Labor, the Maine Department of Education and the University of Southern Maine, to set up a whole new partnership that had never been done before. This was the fall of 2009 into the New Year, and we were going to ramp it up, and what happens? That March, Lake Region High School was named one of the 10 worst performing schools in the state, and they had to disconnect from this process, to go through their own internal reinvention. That was devastating; but they’ve made outstanding efforts and improvements in programs, and now they’re going to get (a school-business partnership) going again. The new superintendent, Kathleen Beecher, really knows the place; she’s going to dedicate for the long run here. We have a strong partner going forward. The fourth pillar is infrastructure. Bridgton’s challenges in terms of economic development and attraction are a direct result of deficiencies in its planning and development regulatory framework. When I first read the comprehensive plan, I realized there’s a huge disconnect there (between the vision and reality). And then in the middle of all this, came the really disruptive citizens’ petition to ban big box developments and fast food restaurants in reaction to the McDonald’s development. It had an adverse impact on the community; those were tough months, until the vote in March of 2011. Where people would literally approach you on the streets and say, ‘Whose side are you on?’ It’s them or us, good or bad. It was the manifestation of a community kind of torn a little bit in half. I was doing my form-based code presentations even before that, feeling people out on it — and then the vote happened, the ban was defeated — and I remember that great unifying session we had downstairs in town hall. And here, once again, was the opportunity when people on both sides of the issue stood up to the microphone, even some of the old war horses, and said we really do have to find a better way to lay out our development pattern here in Bridgton. Because, what we’re doing (in terms of current site plan review), we all admit is not working; and we can’t have this kind of citizen revolt every time a new development expresses interest, because that’s what makes us look to the outside world as unstable, and a dangerous place to invest. And we realized we wanted developers to do better than just coming in and imposing their own corporate vision on our town.

Enter form-based codes. “That is when I took the initiative with the board of selectmen to reform the comprehensive plan committee. We needed to carry through what was charged to us in the 2004 plan that we never did. I said there’s a wonderful approach, well suited for Bridgton at this time, which is called a form-based code. So I did the presentation, showed them the methodology, (which use physical form, rather than separation of land uses, as an organizing principle). And they said they liked this; this is the path we want to explore further. So we carried through with that, and I am very proud to say, this past Thursday, Dec. 29, I delivered Bridgton’s form-based code to the comprehensive plan committee and the town manager. They are draft development standards for Portland Road and the Main Street district. Now, the real work begins without me, as the committee works with the public to fine-tune these standards for Bridgton.”

Sewers aren’t sexy, but they’re essential. “It’s not glamorous, and it’s not sexy, but I’m very proud to say that, over the past three years, we rebuilt the entire downtown wastewater disposal system. We completed the inflow and infiltration study, which came out with excellent results. We have it all nailed down now. And if we had not done that, no one could have done anything (downtown), because the system was built out. And because we were able to accomplish that, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is now giving us really extraordinary consideration in lowering those regulatory barriers with regard to downtown rezoning — which the people voted in favor of. Soon we’re going to have our first development-ready site — the former Bridgton Memorial School (on Depot Street) — that’s now in the economic development corporation’s hands. In my previous jobs, whether in Lowell, Nashua, or the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, I was the guy that got the glory. The people that went before me did the groundwork for a guy like me to come in and be the hero, and accomplish all the great hopes and dreams. Here in Bridgton, I’m going to be the guy that laid out all that groundwork, all the foundations and the basic pillars, so that the person that comes after me is going to carry it through. They are going to see it happen, and this is good. It’s all been very satisfying, in all kinds of ways. (Since resigning), I’ve gotten so many e-mails, letters, cards…people who stop me in the street to say the kindest things, because they know I get real down on myself because of a handful of guys who were relentless. One of the letters said, and I quote: You’ve opened our eyes to what a first-class town needs to watch out for, and be aware of. As we travel visiting other New England towns, we comment on something you taught us; whether it is buildings facing the street, two-thirds glass to welcome you in, counting curb cuts. We notice now. I walk out of here with such a sense of accomplishment, to know I’ve ingrained this in people. It’s not me. This was all within them. It’s always been within Bridgton. I was just the sparkplug. And the sparkplug is not the engine. The engine drives the car.

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