Selectmen will hold meeting for public on Narrow Gauge Railroad

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

Following a meeting on Monday with the “stakeholders” of a proposed Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in Bridgton, a public forum will be held in upcoming weeks to inform the public of what is known to date, Director of Economic and Community Development Alan Manoian announced Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, a meeting was held at the Bridgton Municipal Complex to discuss “Broad Range Action for the Narrow Gauge Railroad,” according to the printed agenda. The agenda included welcoming remarks by Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, a Review of Request for Proposal (RFP) and Bridgton’s Response to the Proposal by Manoian, the Status of the Community Selection Process led by a representative from the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, and Open Forum for Comment and Discussion, and Direction/Consensus on Next Steps.

Two weeks ago, Selectman Bernie King had brought the idea of asking Bridgton’s voters, in a non-binding straw poll referendum in November, if they are in favor of bringing the Portland-based Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum here or not.
Bridgton is one of three municipalities being considered for the home site of the MNGRR Museum, a decision on which is expected sometime in late September, Manoian said, at the Aug. 9 selectmen’s meeting. The NGRR Museum Board of Directors had originally hoped to have a decision made by June of this year, according to Manoian.

“The reason I’m bringing it up,” said Selectman King Tuesday night, “is I attended the meeting yesterday (Monday)…and I definitely got the message of how they felt about it  — I got a negative feeling.”

“I think we should come back with more of a public type of meeting on this…especially having to do with the (property) owners in the right-of-way,” Selectman King stated. “Bill (Shelley, who has spearheaded the Return of the Rails drive to bring the MNGRR Museum to Bridgton) said they all approved it. I’d like to see a more public take on it — I’m not asking for a referendum on it — but to see what the public thinks of it, rather than those who were there.”

“There will be a (public) forum held, yes,” Manoian stated. “Monday’s meeting was designed to be for the stakeholder group.” He then listed some of those groups and organizations, including the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, the Bridgton Community Development Committee, the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation, the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the Bridgton Historical Society and Return of the Rails.

Manoian said further that there would be an article in today’s edition of The Bridgton News detailing the process.
“We are now going to take that next step — the general public forum,” Manoian said. “My office felt it was important.”

The Economic and Community Development Director said Monday’s meeting was intended for the stakeholders, “so they could lay cards on the table.”

“And now, let’s have a public forum,” Manoian said. “There are two dynamics — it’s been an interesting experience for all of us.”
“I think it was a little premature,” King said of the Aug. 8 stakeholders’ meeting on the MNGRR. “For one thing, we don’t know the status of the (Bridgton Memorial School) property.”

Selectman Paul Hoyt pointed out that School Administrative District 61 officials have said they will need to use the former Bridgton Memorial School space this coming fall, due to construction at Lake Region High School.

Referring to the MNGRR directors, he asked Manoian, “They’re willing to wait a year?”

“They said they’re a volunteer organization, and they’re going to need more time,” Manoian replied.

The Bridgton Memorial School property is still under the ownership of SAD 61, so Manoian said the Community Deveopment Block Grant (CDBG) funds that will be used to perform the brownfields remediation project will go to the school district, as the ground contamination at the former railroad station depot site occurred many years ago, when it was owned by the Town of Bridgton.  He said the town could not be the recipient of the clean-up funds because “we’re the responsible party for the contamination.”

Shelley, of Return of the Rails, asked if there has been a definite date set, as to when SAD 61 will offer the former school back to the citizens of Bridgton.

“The answer to that question is an ‘if’,” said Berkowitz “After meeting with Interim (SAD 61) Superintendent Beecher, we all look to next June.”  Bridgton voters would have to approve accepting the former school from SAD 6I, under state law.

Former selectman Earl Cash asked if the taxpayers of Bridgton are going to wind up paying for the brownfields cleanup costs.
“The (CDB) grant would fund the demolition of the (school) building and the cleanup,” Manoian said. “The quote was north of $600,000…If we structure it right, there should be no cost to the taxpayers.”

“We (the town) don’t want to take ownership till that’s all done,” said Berkowitz, referring to the brownfields cleanup, “and the funding won’t be available till next year.”

“It seems premature to make an offer (to house the NGRR museum here) on something you don’t own,” stated Cash.

“We made a disclaimer (to the NGRR representatives) that it was subject to transfer (of the Bridgton Memorial School) from SAD 61,” Manoian said.

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