BRUNSWICK — The federal grant that the town hoped would help offset its share of the $23 million Maine Street Station project is on its way.
And for real this time.
Maine Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe announced April 23 that the federal Economic Development Administration awarded the town $902,500 for infrastructure work at Maine Street Station, the multi-use development that currently stands as the town’s lone economic development project.
The announcement of the grant comes after several months of trepidation for the town, which hoped the money would offset the $2 million it has committed to the project. Although the grant had been promised by town officials as early as last summer, a series of delays and reapplications had some concerned that funding was lost.
The town’s prospects for the grant brightened last month when the EDA allowed Brunswick to begin infrastructure work before authorization of the funding. The town had argued that bureaucracy within the federal agency was delaying the construction and viability of the project.
The town had also appealed to the state’s congressional delegation to lean on the EDA.
In joint statement, Snowe and Collins said Maine Street Station was an important project.
“(Maine Street Station) will create additional space for businesses, facilitate increased use of bus and rail transportation and be an economic driver in the region,” the senators said in the statement. “We have strongly supported this project from its inception, and will continue to support initiatives that help to mitigate the negative economic consequences of the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station.”
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, acting Town Manager Gary Brown had been optimistic about winning the grant, saying that the EDA’s early-work authorization last month was a sign the grant was forthcoming. On Friday, Brown said he was “delighted”.
“This is one more step in the positive direction that this project has taken,” Brown wrote in an e-mail.
“The Maine Street Station project is the top economic development priority of the Town Council this year,” Brown added, “and this funding will help bring this project to completion and fulfill the broad goals and vision that began several years ago.”
The Town Council on Monday lauded Brown’s efforts for working with EDA and the state’s congressional delegation. Brown has taken the lead on Maine Street Station ever since becoming the acting town manager and assuming some responsibilities of former Economic and Community Development Director Mat Eddy, who resigned in December.
With the EDA money secure, the council now shifts its focus to lease negotiations with JHR Development for the proposed 2,000-square-foot train station and visitor’s center.
Although the town is a partner in the entire Maine Street Station development, it has already signed a sublease from Bowdoin College for municipal meeting space. In April the council decided to begin negotiations to become the master tenant and manager for the train station, the success of which hinges upon the extension of the Amtrak Downeaster from Portland to Brunswick.
The extension enjoys broad support from state and local leaders, as well as the congressional delegation. Last year the state Legislature green-lit a funding mechanism for the estimated $30 million needed in rail improvements to make the project happen.
Nonetheless, Amtrak’s operational funding is still uncertain, leading some councilors to worry that the town could end up managing a facility without its main economic driver.
On Monday, Councilor Joanne King reiterated those concerns, saying she wanted more information about the pros and cons of becoming the master tenant, particularly since town officials predict it could produce an estimated annual revenue shortfall between $15,000 and $50,000.
Proponents like Councilor Margo Knight argue that the shortfall would be eclipsed by the other benefits, such as branding opportunities for the town and additional control of subtenants. Knight added that the council will seek a termination clause in the event the Downeaster doesn’t arrive.
Still, King said, the town should be cautious before signing a lease agreement.
“I’m still not convinced we’re really good landlords,” King said. “I know other towns manage their train stations, but we’re a little different, especially since the train is not here.”
“It could be hard to raise our hands to support something with the potential of a $50,000 shortfall,” she added.
The council is also working to setup agreements with potential subtenants, most of which have already sent letters of interest to JHR.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org