Brunswick could be master tenant of train station
Council to decide if town should negotiate with developer
BRUNSWICK — The town could end up holding the keys to the 2,100-square-foot train station and welcome center at the $23 million Maine Street Station project.
Brunswick is already a partner in the project, having committed more than $2 million to infrastructure costs, as well as an estimated $35,000 to sublet space from Bowdoin College for meeting space.
Despite those commitments, the council's Maine Street Station Oversight Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend beginning negotiations with JHR Development to become the master tenant of a train station that's banking heavily on the planned 2010 extension of Amtrak Downeaster service.
The Town Council on Monday, April 6, will decide whether to begin negotiations.
The Downeaster extension is not a sure thing, largely because of uncertainties surrounding its substantial operating subsidy from the federal government. If the town becomes master tenant, the unpredictable outcome of Amtrak funding could play a crucial role in the town's ability to sublet space to tenants hoping to fill out what is supposed to be multi-modal hub.
On Wednesday, acting Town Manager Gary Brown told the oversight committee that JHR Development has five preliminary letters of intent to lease space at the station. The potential lessors include Coastal Trans, Hertz Car Rental, Maine Eastern Railroad and the Brunswick Downtown Association.
While the Brunswick Downtown Association has expressed interest in becoming a tenant regardless of the Downeaster, some committee members are worried transportation organizations may not be as accommodating.
"What if the train doesn't come?" Councilor Ben Tucker asked. "How do we manage that risk?"
John Gerard, of the Brunswick Development Corp., said the town could seek a termination clause for the lease if the Downeaster doesn't arrive. However, such a clause could be a sticking point with JHR, which is eager to sign tenants for the project.
"If the train is delayed or doesn't come, and the town's sitting there renting empty space, a lot of people will have eggs on their faces," Gerard said.
While the town's cost of leasing the space hasn't been drafted, Brown indicated there could be a gap between what it pays to be the master tenant and what the potential sublessors have already negotiated with JHR. Brown estimated the gap could be between $10,000 and $15,000.
The BDC, however, could ensure that taxpayers won't be responsible for filling that gap. The board is comprised mostly of town staff. Both Gerard and Steve Weems, the citizen representatives on the board, on Wednesday endorsed using the funds.
"I strongly support this being controlled by the town on the premise that there's strong public interest in the train and the train station," Weems said, "to have a space that the town controls and can brand ... to promote the welfare of the downtown."
Resident Marji Greenhut questioned the town assuming all the risk, especially since JHR stood to profit as much from the Downeaster's arrival as anyone.
But councilors on the committee believed town control of the station would present significant opportunities.
"To be blunt, even if there's a funding gap, I'm willing to support this," Tucker said. "Maybe we're not going to make a profit, but the public benefit will more than payback the (gap)."
Brown said taking over the station could energize support for the project – support that's been waning over the last five months due to cost overruns and delays in federal funding long ago promised to offset taxpayers' burden.
"I think it would be good if we can reduce some angst over this project," Brown said.
Later in the meeting, Brown announced another wrinkle. The town previously hoped to secure a $500,000 grant to repave the state Department of Transportation parking lot on Cedar Street. But on Monday, Brown said that he'd received an informal communication from DOT that the money isn't coming.
While the Planning Board approved the Maine Street Station site plan without the Cedar Street lot, inadequate parking could hinder tenant attraction both for the town and JHR. Hertz, brown said, requires 15 parking spots for its rental fleet.
Parking could also determine passenger use of the Downeaster.
"We need to meet this challenge somehow," Brown said, adding that the town is exploring alternative parking sites. He declined to disclose where those sites are.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.