BRUNSWICK — The Town Council’s search for a unified vision for economic development continued Monday, as did its quest to ease longstanding conflicts over the Brunswick Economic Development Corp., the quasi-governmental agency that advises the town on development.
It remains to be seen if Monday’s workshop successfully laid the groundwork to achieve either goal. However, after a two-hour session during which members of the Freeport, Portland and Scarborough economic development organizations described their business-attraction strategies, the council had a regional context for future decisions.
With Monday’s workshop resembling more of a public forum, BEDC members and councilors heard from representatives of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., Portland’s Economic Development Division and the Scarborough Economic Development Corp.
The varying makeup of all three organizations, and their respective approaches to economic development, gave the council a wide range of perspectives, particularly on how to balance public transparency with the need to conduct real estate transactions in private.
Some councilors have argued that BEDC has failed to strike that balance, thus contributing to suspicions about the organization’s agenda and concerns that town staff were working on the BEDC’s behalf, not the town’s.
According to the FEDC’s Wendy Caisse, Freeport’s quasi-governmental agency experienced a similar problem that last year forced the organization to begin holding public meetings and taking minutes. Caisse said there was a “shroud of secrecy” hovering over the FEDC.
Since then, she said, only a handful of people have attended FEDC meetings.
Meanwhile, Scarborough’s development organization functions as the town’s economic development department. President Harvey Rosenfeld said SEDCO meetings are not public, but there are no town staffers on the board of directors. The organization is funded by the town, Rosenfeld said, and it works closely with the Town Council and the town manager.
“Not working for the town allows us to get in the middle of a project,” Rosenfeld said. “We don’t work solely for the town, or the developer.”
Rosenfeld said that while SEDCO holds private meetings, it makes a concerted effort to be public in its dealings by appearing before the Town Council and speaking weekly with various media outlets.
“We have to be in synch with what the community wants,” said Rosenfeld, who told a story about advancing an unpopular project that was eventually defeated in a special election and prompted a change in the Town Charter to prevent a future development effort.
Portland’s Economic Development Division contrasts with both SEDCO and FEDC. Greg Mitchell, the division’s director, said all dealings are in public, with the exception of sensitive real estate transactions. The department reports to the City Council, which also seats three members on the division’s board.
While Mitchell acknowledged that economic development demanded confidentiality for interested businesses, he said any municipal development had to be a public process.
“You can’t get around it,” Mitchell said.
Although the workshop dialogue was civil, one subject triggered recent tensions. It came when Councilor Karen Klatt, a persistent critic of the BEDC, asked the guests how they handled potential conflicts of interest among board members.
Rosenfeld responded by saying that SEDCO board members would be asked to step down if they could financially benefit from projects the organization is advancing.
“We don’t want any hint of a conflict of interest,” Rosenfeld said.
The question has previously drawn an angry response from BEDC members, in particular Mike Ouellet, the organization’s president and a contractor hired for the $23 million Maine Street Station project.
Last year Ouellet also served on the Maine Street Station Implementation Committee. He was eventually hired by JHR Development for construction at Maine Street Station.
That prompted Councilor Ben Tucker to question if the hiring, and Ouellet’s position on the BEDC, constituted a conflict.
Councilor Margo Knight on Monday sought to establish that Klatt’s impressions about a conflict of interest were her own, not the council’s. Knight added that the town attorney ultimately determined there wasn’t a conflict involving Maine Street Station.
The council’s reconsideration of economic development strategies, and the role of the BEDC, follows a particularly unproductive 2008. Throughout the year the council repeatedly squabbled over a proposed Walgreens pharmacy, a project that generated more than a dozen public meetings and revealed entrenched development philosophies.
The Walgreens project also elicited concerns that the BEDC was advancing projects that benefited its members. Several councilors also worried that the organization is too shrouded in secrecy, especially given that three town employees sit on its board.
Since then the council has attempted to repair rifts among its ranks and adopt a shared development vision that will assist in the hiring of a new economic development director. The council has also been evaluating the role of the BEDC.
In turn, the BEDC has attempted to broaden its membership and increase transparency.
On Monday, several audience members and Councilor Debbie Atwood were intrigued by Mitchell’s suggestion that the town establish a non-profit corporation to take advantage of the Mid-Coast’s vibrant arts and cultural community.
Similarly, Portland recently set up the Creative Portland Corp. to capitalize on a creative economy that Mitchell said contributes $30 million annually to the local economy.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.