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Economic development bedevils Falmouth Town Council

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Economic development bedevils Falmouth Town Council

FALMOUTH — The only area on which the Falmouth Town Council appears to agree when discussing a proposed Economic Development Committee is the need for better definition of its purpose and function.

During a workshop at last week's meeting, Councilor David Libby requested the go-ahead from councilors to pursue creation of a council-appointed committee of citizens he said might "help send the message that we're open for business."

Though Libby acknowledged parameters for such a committee were not yet defined, he told his fellow councilors the specifics could be worked out as he discusses ideas and the town's needs with Long Range Planning Director Theo Holtwijk and as they explore what other communities in greater Portland already have in place.

"We've kicked this around for as long as I've been on Town Council and we've never done anything," Libby said. "Two or three of us ran on the platform of economic development in this town; if I look at the makeup of citizens' committees, there's not one of them that advocates for economic issues."

Possible charges for the committee might include reviewing ordinances to ensure they do not unduly restrict businesses and working with perspective businesses to help streamline their location process, Libby said. 

Councilor Will Armitage, who is the executive director of the Biddeford-Saco Area Economic Development Corp., was not at last week's meeting. But in a phone interview, he said he thought creation of the committee is "important." But he added misconceptions about economic development have colored some people's opinions.

"Some think of it as smokestack chasing and that scares a lot of people. I don't think that's what any of us are advocating for, because that kind of activity doesn't fit into our community," Armitage said. "But there are opportunities where you could have a bio-tech company or back office operation ... the potential for other kinds of activity that could have positive impact on the community without creating that industrial smokestack in someone's backyard."

But several councilors during the meeting expressed concerns that such a committee would take up staff time and may not be appropriate on a local level.

Chairwoman Cathy Breen said she was "embarrassed" to say she didn't understand the point of economic development.

"What is the point? Are we trying to make everybody in town richer because we're going to have better, higher quality jobs?" Breen asked. "Is it that we think if we bring in commercial entities they will generate property tax revenues that will be disproportionately large in proportion to what they spend in services, is that it? That's what I struggle with – what do you really want to get out of it?"

In a phone interview Tuesday, Breen said it was a "common perception of commercial development" that a higher commercial tax base would give Falmouth the financial ability to acquire more open space and give more monetary support to schools, while helping to lower property taxes for its residents. She said infrastructure costs for economic development projects and tax increment financing eat into the amount of revenue commercial development would produce.

"There's an assumption that more commercial development equals x, y or z, and it's more complex than that," she said.

Holtwijk said Tuesday that some other communities in the area have "seen the benefits of having a
committee" and said "a lot of decisions get made at the local level."

"Obviously, if economic development is done in a successful manner, it contributes to the local tax base," he said.

And Armitage said the expansion of a town's commercial tax base "has the potential of easing the burden" on residents because it doesn't increase demand for education.

According to Town Manager Nathan Poore, commercial entities now account for 10 percent of the town's tax base.

During the council meeting, Breen, along with Councilor Bonny Rodden, recommended a regional approach and reminded councilors of a workshop on regional efforts for economic development they'd held with Portland Regional Chamber President Godfrey Wood and Greater Portland Council of Governments Executive Director Neal Allen.

But in a phone interview Tuesday, Falmouth resident Wood said it was "a great idea" for Falmouth to have a local economic development committee in addition to working with a regional group.

"A lot of other municipalities have them and they're making great progress attracting and retaining businesses," he said. "The local (committee) brings focus and the regional brings clout."

Poore said Tuesday that economic development needs to be addressed locally as well as regionally for a town the size of Falmouth.

"While (regional efforts) are very important, it still has to be a vision for your community, your town, and that should be done by the town," he said.

Though Poore said there are many ways Falmouth could approach economic development issues, getting a head start on topics that will be tackled in the Comprehensive Plan could be beneficial. He and Holtwijk are scheduled to meet with Libby next week to talk about what is already in place and what needs to be addressed.

While he acknowledged a committee would make more work for staff, Poore said it is "a necessary component of any long-range comprehensive planning."

Holtwijk to a degree has taken on the role of economic development director as the town looks toward redevelopment of the Falmouth Shopping Center and the vision for the Route 1 corridor. He is in the process of creating a database of available commercial spaces in the town that he and Poore hope soon to have available as part of a new Web site.

Although no town-sanctioned economic development group currently exists, a group of business people formed the private, non-profit Falmouth Economic Development Commission in the past decade. According to its president, Erik Wiberg, the organization's primary purpose is to "keep an eye on economic development opportunities in Falmouth and be aware of policies that could adversely affect businesses."

Although critics have claimed the group's primary purpose is political, Wiberg said it advocates for long-range planning that identifies areas for business opportunities as well as those for conservation. He said the community must invite private investment and enterprise to keep the town affordable.

"(Some) currently look at economic development as an adversary," he said. "Many in our political body look at it as something that is bad. But economic development is the only thing that can keep Falmouth viable from a tax base perspective, an educational perspective and an infrastructure perspective. It is the engine for those forces."

In the next few weeks, Libby said, he will be looking at the way other communities address economic development and will fine-tune its mission, with staff input, before bringing it back to a council workshop by what he hopes is no later than December.

"I think Falmouth ought to be advocating for Falmouth," he said. "When that company comes to Falmouth, who gets the tax revenue and guess whose taxes might come down. There's room for both regional and local."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.