BRUNSWICK — A proposal to return a portion of property taxes to the developer of the Maine Street Station project elicited a near unanimous chorus of frustration from the Town Council on Monday.
Most councilors appeared willing to support the so-called credit enhancement provision, which would be included in a proposed downtown tax increment financing district to help JHR Development build a 56-room inn. However, several councilors questioned the scarcity of details and a compressed schedule for completing the deal.
The councilors’ reaction illustrated their reluctance to rubber-stamp a proposal amid rapidly accumulating outlays for the project, which now total more than $3.3 million in grants, bonds, rental agreements and corresponding renovation and outfitting costs.
The response also follows recently released projections from the town’s finance office that Maine Street Station will be worth just over $14 million – and not the $36 million touted by proponents in 2007. As recently as last summer, JHR Development estimated the project would be worth $23.5 million, attributing the reduced value to the project’s reduced size.
Town officials on Monday did not address the diminished value, and Town Manager Gary Brown did not return calls seeking comment.
On Tuesday, Councilor Ben Tucker sarcastically described the original $36 million – and the resulting 750 jobs town officials said would be created – as “wishful thinking.” That comment was preceded by others lamenting the ambiguity of the 2007 joint development agreement, a document that has the town paying more, and receiving less, than expected.
Tucker and council Chairwoman Joanne King readily acknowledged mistakes in the JDA, vowing not to repeat them by green-lighting a loosely defined provision that would further subtract or delay the town’s dividends.
“The whole council is on the same wavelength on this,” Tucker said. “I think we support the project, but we’re not going to sign an open-ended promise and write a blank check.”
“We don’t want to repeat past mistakes in the JDA, leave things open and just kick the can down the road,” he added.
“We’ve put a lot into this project, and for all the right reasons,” she said Tuesday. “But we need to hear the details before we can make any kind of decision.”
King and other councilors were particularly eager to hear from JHR’s representatives, none of whom were present for Monday’s meeting or a workshop on Jan. 21 that began the credit enhancement discussion.
“We feel like we’re in an abyss with absolutely no information,” King said Monday. “If this is important to the developer, we need to hear from them.”
Vice Chairwoman Debbie Atwood wondered how denying the credit enhancement provision would impact the project, adding that she needed a full explanation.
“I’m quite concerned about making a decision that I might later regret,” Atwood said.
Mike Lyne, JHR’s project manager, could not be reached for comment. In the past, Lyne and JHR President Hilary Rocket have said the proposed inn was critical to the success of the project.
Councilors on Monday demonstrated a willingness to accommodate JHR’s request, which would effectively rebate a portion of the $338,000 the developer would pay in annual property taxes to finance further build-out of the project.
However, the percentage of the rebate and potential performance standards have yet to be negotiated – a sticking point for many councilors on Monday.
Several were also critical of the March 1 deadline to submit the town’s downtown TIF district for state review.
Brown and Economic Development Director David Markovchick said hitting the deadline is necessary to capture and shelter maximum land valuation at Maine Street Station.
However, it’s unclear why the tax rebate provision was just now being negotiated, particularly since the 2007 JDA states that the town would consider a TIF for the project.
Although the credit enhancement provision isn’t specifically mentioned in the JDA, the mechanism is the only one that could benefit the developer, a point that Tucker said made the time crunch all the more puzzling.
“The better thing to do would’ve been to negotiate the (credit enhancement) in 2007,” Tucker said.
The council voted unanimously Monday to set a Feb. 8 public hearing on the rebate provision and the TIF district.
“We all feel we made a commitment (to the project) and we’ve done more than expected,” Tucker said. “… I think we all support the project. But we need to know how much more we need to put into this.”
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org