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South Portland advisory group shuffles federal grants, suggests $50K loan to E Street developers

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South Portland advisory group shuffles federal grants, suggests $50K loan to E Street developers

SOUTH PORTLAND — The Community Development Advisory Committee voted unanimously to recommend reallocating nearly $200,000 in federal Community Block Development Grant funds.

The CDAC is a group of resident volunteers that makes recommendations to the City Council, which will take up the recommendations in the coming weeks. The reallocations come from previous projects that either finished under budget or did not move forward. Also, the city received additional grants through the federal stimulus program. 

The committee on Tuesday recommended providing a low-interest loan for an E Street group housing project for the developmentally disabled.

Paul and Mary Chris Bulger, the residents spearheading the project, asked the committee for a $250,000 grant to help offset construction costs and make the housing units more affordable to the low-income disabled people looking to purchase rooms. However, the CDAC recommended providing a $50,000 loan at 1 percent interest. 

"The fact that this is a loan, not a grant, makes it possible for me to support this tonight," CDAC member Kevin Glynn said.

The E Street project would offer nine owner-occupied units to the developmentally disabled who are capable of living semi-independently and working, but who still need support services. Residents would purchase their units and pay an additional $1,600 a month for food and services, which would be offered by staffers living in the building.  

Mary Chris Bulger said their company, E Street Development Co., is not undertaking the project for profit, but is not registered as a nonprofit group, which would allow it to apply for grants on its own. The Bulgers have a 25-year-old disabled daughter would like to live in the facility. 

"We think this really fits in with South Portland's master plan for a walkable and diverse community," Bulger said, noting the units will bring in tax revenue for the city. "I think we bring a lot to the city."

Bulger said the price of the condos to be sold will be adjusted to cover construction costs, currently estimated at about $1.2 million. Only four of the nine units, currently priced between $125,000 and $150,000, have been sold. 

Construction on the project, which has already been approved by the Planning Board and City Council, began on Monday, she said, even though they had originally hoped to pre-sell the units before stating. By getting a low-interest loan or grant, she said, the cost of each unit may be lowered to make them more affordable to less affluent families.

Bulger said the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has committed $40,000 after the project is complete. Meanwhile, E Street Development is hoping to secure vouchers to help offset the cost for families. 

Although the committee fully endorsed the project, most members believed it would not be appropriate to give a large grant to a private enterprise.

"I'm really struggling with this," CDAC member Anton Hoecker said. "This is a private group."

Members coalesced around the $50,000 loan. The details will be drafted by Assistant City Manager and Economic Development Director Erik Carson and will go before the City Council.

In another reallocation, the CDAC recommended investing $50,000 for exterior work on the former Hutchins School, a city-owned Ferry Village building being rented by Mad Horse Theatre Company, and repaving the Mosher Street parking lot.

Carson said the building has suffered from years of neglect, but is structurally sound. The exterior is developing holes and birds are gaining access to, and building nests inside, the attic and the parking lot is in substandard condition. 

Hoecker pressed Carson to explore using the more environmentally friendly, porous pavement, which absorbs storm water rather than deflecting it. He also suggested adding shade trees to the center of the lot.

"We need to have something to show developers that we can have trees and parking at the same time," Hoecker said, noting the project could be a model for private developers. "I would rather vote against (the proposal) because it is too expensive, rather than not look at it at all." 

Although those features would likely be cost-prohibitive, Carson said he would explore those options and report back.

Other recommended reallocations included a $15,000 investment into improving handicapped accessibility at the Historical Society's new museum near Bug Light Park and the back door of the South Portland Public Library on Broadway. Also, $16,800 was reallocated for a pedestrian signal where the Greenbelt Walkway crosses Cottage Road near Mill Creek Park, while $20,000 will become undesignated surplus.  

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

This story was updated to correct the state agency contributing money to the project.