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Brunswick council OKs negotiations for train station

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Brunswick council OKs negotiations for train station

BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday voted 8-1 to allow its Maine Street Station Oversight Committee and acting Town Manager Gary Brown to negotiate with JHR Development to become the master tenant of the $23 million project's 2,100-square-foot train station.

Councilor Karen Klatt opposed the decision to try to operate and manage the station.

Some councilors acknowledged that the town's $2 million investment in the project and its subsequent cost overruns could make further commitments by taxpayers unpopular. However, several argued that the train station could become a visitor gateway and the hub of the multi-use development.

That outcome depends heavily on the planned extension of Amtrak Downeaster service, which if completed, would create train service between Brunswick and Boston. Extending the service from Portland is viewed as a potential gold mine for Brunswick and Maine Street Station, a project town officials hope will ease the impact of the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Downeaster advocates are equally hopeful, particularly after the state Legislature last year ratified a bill funding the upgrade of rail lines between Portland and Brunswick. The $35 million project could also qualify for federal grant funding if it meets standards outlined in a new railroad infrastructure plan by federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. LaHood is scheduled to submit his plan on April 18 to determine distribution of the $8 billion earmarked in the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

But despite renewed federal support for rail and Amtrak, the Downeaster extension is not a sure thing because of uncertainties surrounding its operating subsidy from the federal government.

If the town becomes master tenant, the unpredictable outcome of Downeaster funding could be problematic as the town attempts to sublet space to tenants hoping to fill out what is supposed to be multi-modal hub.

That risk was a significant concern for some councilors Monday, but proponents argued that the town would seek a termination clause for the lease if the Downeaster isn't extended. However, such a clause could be a sticking point with JHR, which is eager to sign tenants for the project.

Nonetheless, members of the council subcommittee endorsed entering negotiations. Councilor Margo Knight said that while managing the train station probably won't have a "dollars return on investment," the town's branding opportunities and ability to determine who occupies the facility are worth the expenditure.

Councilor Ben Tucker acknowledged that the town may have made some mistakes in its joint development agreement with JHR, but he said a lease agreement is an opportunity to face new risks "squarely and openly."

"It's taken so many years to establish train service," Tucker added. "Let's be ready for when it finally does get here."

Others questioned the size of the train station and whether the town needs to manage it. Maine Street Station's site plan approval by the Planning Board called for a 1,200-square-foot train station. It has since grown to 2,100 square feet.

According to Patricia Quinn of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, other municipalities served by the Downeaster take varying approaches to their stations and platforms. Quinn said that all NNEPRA needs to serve customers is space for ticketing machines.

Some platforms, like the one in Exeter, N.H., have spartan amenities, Quinn said. Others, like the recently opened $2.2 million Saco Island station, are more elaborate.

"All I need is a sheltered waiting area for passengers and a (cable hook-up) for a ticketing machine," Quinn said. "Anything else the town provides, we'll certainly support. But do we need a station staffed 20 hours a day? No."

Quinn said she encourages towns to get involved in their stations. She said a Saco group will try to double ridership.

"They see it as a tool and benefit to their community," Quinn said.

"It's important to be creative out there," she added. "(A station) doesn't have to be a huge expense. ... It's such an asset to the town. When we're able to say we have service from Brunswick to Boston, that puts Brunswick on the map."

Of the 10 current Downeaster stops, five are either owned or managed by their respective towns. One of the most successful stations is owned by the University of New Hampshire, which last year spent $940,000 renovating its facility.

NNEPRA's headquarters are at the Portland station. The city has no involvement.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.