BRUNSWICK — Citing a desire for public feedback, the Town Council on Monday postponed a decision that could make the town the master tenant of the train station and welcome center at the $23.5 million Maine Street Station project.
Despite pushing the decision to its June 15 meeting, the council didn’t have to wait long for public comment on a proposal that would further involve the town in a project to which it has already committed more than $2.2 million.
On Monday, at least one resident questioned the legality and viability of the proposal, arguing that the town was effectively bailing out the developer.
“The developer took a risk in building Maine Street Station,” Fred Blanchard said. “There is no reason why the town should take that risk, or part of that risk, off his hands at a bargain.”
Blanchard added that a drop in national rental rates and increasing vacancies are forcing landlords to make too many concessions in order to lure tenants.
“This town is losing 20 percent of its population (because of the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station),” Blanchard said. “This is not the time to be building rental real estate.”
The proposed five-year lease agreement with JHR Development, the developer of Maine Street Station, would have the town assume management for $220,000. That money, town officials said, would come from the Brunswick Development Corp., a town-run organization established to fund economic development projects through proceeds from the sale of the Brunswick Technologies Inc. building in the industrial park.
The lease would begin Oct. 1, 2009.
In return, JHR would be responsible for fit-out costs for public restrooms, ceilings and floors in the 2,100-square-foot space.
The lease was negotiated by town officials and the council’s three-member Maine Street Station Oversight Committee. The subcommittee unanimously endorsed the proposal, arguing that it would give the town control over branding opportunities and “first impressions.” Subcommittee member Councilor Margo Knight added that Brunswick would join other municipalities managing train stations along the Amtrak Downeaster passenger rail line.
The Downeaster has been lobbying to extend its service from Portland to Brunswick. However, the evaporation of the service’s state operating subsidy, as well as a competing rail project known as the Mountain Division Line, have clouded the likelihood of the extension.
Knight said Monday that town control of the train station is a good idea even if the Downeaster extension is delayed. She added that Maine Eastern Railroad, a seasonal excursion service, is already in need of a train station.
In addition to using BDC funds, the proposal would have the town turn over management of the facility to another organization, possibly the non-profit Brunswick Downtown Association. However, the town has recently stepped up its financial commitment to the BDA. The Town Council on Monday approved its 2009-2010 budget, which includes funding for a full-time executive director for the BDA.
While most councilors reserved comment on the proposal, two hinted at reservations over further town allocations to Maine Street Station.
Vice Chairman Benet Pols took issue with the perception that using BDC money somehow removes taxpayers from the train station agreement.
“My concern is this idea that BDC money is free money,” Pols said.
Councilor Karen Klatt said she is in favor of a train station, but wants to make sure the town is paying market rates in the lease.
The council is expected to vote on the lease on June 15.