From Mayor Casavant’s Jan. 22, 2018 letter to the community.
The City Council conducted a workshop this past week to discuss options, plans, possibilities and sites of a public parking garage. Nothing has yet been finalized, and there is still much to be done before there is any decision. As you are well aware, I have been a proponent of such a structure for the past six years. When we first began the dialogue, one could see and project parking issues as more and more development occurred in the downtown and mill area. The idea was to get “ahead of the curve”. That did not happen, and today, the situation has worsened, particularly on certain days, at certain hours, during particular events, and during snow bans and emergencies. A few key points to ponder:
—The plan is to ensure that the debt of the garage is not placed on the property tax mil rate. Users will pay a daily, hourly, or monthly fee for use of the facility. It is estimated that if a garage were to open today, between 200 and 300 spaces would be leased immediately. The money obtained from such leases and varying rates, along with some Tax Increment Financing funds, will pay for the debt. The Council has been very clear, as have I, that we cannot allow the debt of such a facility to fall onto the mil rate.
—There is no such thing as free parking. While there appears to be free parking today in our various parking lots and on our streets, the city general fund is paying for upkeep. Whether you own a car or not, you are paying. On Main Street, for example, striping, sweeping, plowing, sanding, snow removal, etc., all comes from property taxes. You are also subsidizing those from out of town who use those spaces, and also subsidizing those who use our lots for their personal parking areas/driveways. Nothing in this world is free, but the plan, if it is approved, is to ensure parking fairness, and instead of property taxes paying for the various services associated with parking, those who utilize the parking will pay for those amenities.
—In order for a parking garage to be successful, a parking management system will need to be implemented. This will certainly arouse some controversy, though again, it is a direct corollary to the premise that users pay for public parking. There will be fees for parking in city parking lots, and the lots will be monitored. There will also be a readjustment of parking hour limitations on various streets in the downtown. Some streets, for example, that today are all day parking might become one hour. Others might be permit parking. All of this is still being developed and discussed, and the final plan will probably look much different than the plan that is being considered today.
Because this issue is so complex, final parking changes and pricing will be gradually phased in over a few years. A key part of this is to provide balance for the needs of businesses in the downtown. For example, there are some merchants whose businesses thrive on people who are in and out of the door quickly. In such areas, 15 minute parking in their immediate vicinity might be the proper rule. In other areas, in order to facilitate shopping from store to store, longer hours of parking would be the norm.
Again, there is much more work that needs to be done on this, and there will be meetings and public hearings in the future. There are so many moving pieces, and, like a jig saw puzzle, one piece hinges on another. It is important that we get this “right”.
—The city hired an engineering company to evaluate three sites for practicality and pricing. Those sites included: Washington Street, land belonging to Pepperell Mills, and the Maine Energy site. There is no perfect site that fits the needs of the entire downtown and mill area. To satisfy all such demands, more than one garage would need to be built, and there is just not enough money to do that. We must get the biggest bang for the buck and at the most affordable price for whatever choice is made.
***The Washington Street site is geometrically too small to build a 500 space garage, and there would be no room for expansion. To build on that site would require a structure that would be 7 stories high, which of course is impractical. The sole advantage to the site is that it would ease parking congestion in the easterly end of Main Street, but a structure on this site would be extremely costly.
***The Pepperell Mill site has been considered for the past 6 years. However, the city does not own the site, and there would be a cost, in one form or another, of procuring the site. The owners have not indicated a willingness to part with that land. Additionally, underneath the site are aqueducts through which once flowed water that powered the mills. Their presence would increase the construction cost of any potential garage on that site. Additionally, I think it would be unwise to destroy or bury those ducts because of their historical significance. I would love to seem them redeveloped and open to the public at some point in time. The advantage to this site is that it is fairly central, but the additional costs and the lack of ownership by the city is problematic.
***The Maine Energy site has the advantages of being expandable, being owned by the city, and scored the highest rating by the engineering company. The disadvantage is that it is more out of the way than the other sites. Another advantage is that a garage in this area would enhance the value of the Maine Energy site in terms of redevelopment and sale. A few years ago, a study was done by Camoin Associates who stated that a publicly financed garage on that site would prove more attractive to developers and would increase the value of the property. However, in order for this site to work, the city would need to obtain easements through the mill district. These easements would connect the garage to Main Street and the River Walk. Without those easements, this site may not be possible, as the easements would shorten the walking distance to Main Street. The city is working with mill owners to secure the necessary paths through the district.
—The vision for the downtown is a series of connections that link the River Walk, the garage, the mills,and Main Street. The possibilities are incredibly attractive and transformational for the city. As I mentioned, there are many moving parts in this scenario. It is like playing 3 dimensional chess as opposed to checkers. Because of the complexity, there remains much more to be fleshed out. This past summer, we saw a small glimpse of what can happen with investment and maintenance in the downtown. We built new sidewalks, installed new lights and crosswalks, paved the street, and added flowers. Overwhelmingly, the people of Biddeford loved those improvements. Think of what can happen if we continue that process and tie the mills, the downtown, and the River Walk together in cohesive package!
—Parking garages are infrastructure. They are the same as streets, sewers, lights, and sidewalks. Many years ago, the city constructed industrial parks, and, in doing so, they built the roads, installed the storm water drains, added the lighting and sidewalks. The idea was to partner with the private sector by providing infrastructure in return for industrial park tenants. That formula worked very well, as the debt from the infrastructure was paid back, over time, via taxes. The garage is no different, as it would be the catalyst for additional development, more new taxes, and more jobs. The city, in constructing the garage, is investing in the city in order to attract more private sector investment, thus stabilizing the tax rate, providing for additional infrastructure improvements, and creating more jobs.
The stabilization of the tax rate is extremely important in this discussion. In order to generate revenue, to pay for the many city services, cities rely on the state for such things as revenue sharing, aid to education, and excise taxes. The city must also follow state law in the application of property taxes. Because the state, in recent years, has become more erratic in its allowances for funding in revenue sharing, and, at times, in education, more and more of the burden for the providing of services has been forced upon the mil rate. The crumbling of city infrastructure has added fuel to that fire! Quite frankly, the state has made many promises to cities and towns that they do not keep, as they are more concerned with controlling their own budget. The result has been a disaster for service center cities.
By providing infrastructure that is deemed essential by developers, we can encourage full development of the mill and downtown areas, and Biddeford can generate more tax revenue that can stabilize the tax rate for homeowners throughout the city. The development of the Maine Energy site, the completion of the $65 million Lincoln Street project, the ongoing redevelopment of buildings on the Pepperell Mill campus, and other downtown areas are all part of the new revenue streams that the city will see. Additionally, because of the rules of supply and demand, properties in the downtown are dramatically increasing in value, which, of course, means more contributions to the city’s tax revenue stream.
Last week, the Maine Real Estate and Development Association (MEREDA) held their annual conference. City staff was in attendance, and one thing was especially clear: Biddeford is considered by the real estate experts as being a hot, self-sustaining market. It is a place in which to invest. The city was also praised for its working relationships with developers, in terms of the process of planning and code enforcement. There is more and more interest in investing in Biddeford, and that is a good thing for all of us.
Doing nothing in terms of parking and economic development is not an option. The Council and I are committed on working to further enhance our city in terms of living, learning, working, and playing. We hope for your input and support as we move forward, as being part of a community means the investment of one’s time, skills, talents and ideas in the governmental process.
Biddeford Historical Preservation Commission:
The Biddeford and Saco Historical Preservation Commissions have coordinated a series of lectures of various topics of interest to the residents of both cities. The lectures are from 6 to 8 pm, on the second Thursday of the month. With so many amazing historical treasures still existing in both communities, awareness and preservation is so important. The remaining lectures are:
Feb. 8, at Pepperell Mill 2 Main St. Biddeford. Seth Harkness, Doug Sanford and Scott Hansen on Historic Cityscapes and Mills of Saco and Biddeford
March 8, at Biddeford City Hall 205 Main St. Biddeford. Amy Cole Ives and John Leeke on Analyzing and Repairing Historic Paint and Siding
April 12, at Grange Hall #3 168 North St. Saco. Betsy Iglehart on Historic Landscapes and Walking Tour
May 10, at Saco City Hall 300 Main St. Saco. Caleb Johnson on Local and State Impacts of Historic Preservation
Winterfest will be occurring Feb 2, 3, and 4, in the Biddeford Downtown area! Highlights include the return of Joe Boucher (his Piano Men show of last year was a sell-out) and his Classic Rock Orchestra; the sledding hill; dog sled rides; an adult sledding party; Juston McKinney comedy show; Glace et Felu in Shevenell Park; fat bike rides; pony rides; broomball; skating, and more. For a full schedule: https://biddefordwi
This event is very affordable and family friendly, with free hotdogs, hot cocoa, pizza and other treats for kids! Hope to see you there! It is always a lot of fun.
A special thanks to the following: The sledding hill at Biddeford WinterFest would not be possible without the following organizations: New Life Church Maine, Thyng Paving LLC, Peters Construction, Dead River Company, Dee Quality Foundations, Larry Patoine Construction, Phil Labbe Excavation & Fashion Floors of Scarborough!! Their volunteerism and dedication to the event make all of this happen!
Katarie Gaudet-Chamberland, from Quebec City, will be arriving in Biddeford on February 4. She will be working to better coordinate the Franco-American culture in our city. Last July, I attended a Francophone Conference in Quebec, and, as a result, I applied for a grant that would pay for the internship. We were awarded that grant, and Katarie will be working out of the McArthur Library (thanks to Jeff Cabral and Renee Desroberts). It is our hope that she will be able to connect with the many Franco organizations and individuals, to listen to their histories, and to catalog any artifacts or pictures that they might have. If you have access to Franco photos or historical objects, please let me know so that you can be part of this process.
As a side note, a huge thank you to Diane Cyr and her tremendous work in pulling together the Biddeford Cultural Center organization. The group now has tax exempt status and can accept donations of money and objects. The ultimate goal remains to have a physical space to exhibit the many artifacts that exist within the city, and to highlight our diverse cultural roots.
As always, should you have any concerns or comments, please feel free to contact me! Have a pleasant evening.