HARPSWELL — Before they unanimously agreed to accept a Portland firm’s proposal to create an economic development plan on Sept. 6, selectmen wondered if the firm could reach out to the fishing community – a part of the town’s economy that has been known for its lack of participation.
“Many of the fishermen as a group, they’re not really prominent when we have forums for town planning,” Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said Tuesday.
Other town officials, and two representatives from the Harpswell Business Administration, agreed with Multer’s assessment.
“We can’t get them together for any issue,” said Richard Moseley, president of the HBA and owner of the Harpswell Inn. Moseley said it would “take an act of Congress to make anything happen.”
Multer, and other town officials, said the fishing community represents a large part of the town’s economy, which is why it’s important to get its members on board with the economic development plan that will be formed by Planning Decisions of Portland over the next five months.
“Harpswell is a small community with a small staff, so we need think about what’s possible, what’s desirable and what’s manageable for them to accomplish,” said Frank O’Hara, vice president of Planning Decisions and project leader for the town’s economic development plan.
“The goal at the end is to have one, two or three economic development plans that the town can act on,” O’Hara added, and those plans will largely rely on the advice from the town as a whole.
On Monday, the town will sign a formal agreement with the firm. Selectmen voted 3-0 to accept it during their Sept. 6 meeting.
According to the agreement, the town will receive monthly invoices and pay the company a total of $12,000.
All but $2,000 will come from a Community Development Block Grant the town received through Cumberland County from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in June, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said.
According to the contract for the grant, the town must match the funds with $5,000 of their own. Eiane said $2,000 of those matching funds will come from the town budget, and the other $3,000 will be matched in-kind with staff time and cost of materials produced.
Planning Decisions will hold the first public forum on the plan in October, “where everything will be on the table,” O’Hara said.
According to its proposal, the firm will then conduct a series of interviews with “key people within Harpswell and outside,” and hold a forum in November to discuss “meaningfully unique assets” that have the potential for growth.
The “key people” include town officials, members of the Harpswell Business Association, and regional and state economic developers “for perceptions of opportunities that might exist” for the town.
Selectman Alison Hawkes, who was part of the committee that chose Planning Decisions, said she was impressed with the firm’s plan to reach out to the fishing community.
“They said the exact things we were looking for,” Hawkes said at the Sept. 6 meeting.
This included the firm’s willingness to reach out to fishermen in whatever environment they felt most comfortable – even if it’s on a boat, O’Hara said.
The firm has worked with small towns in the past for economic development plans, including South Bewick, Hallowell and Gardiner, the project leader said. They have also worked with Harpswell on smaller projects in the past.
“They did very well with implementing ordinance changes and communicating with the public about those changes in a way that they could understand,” said Hallowell City Manager Michael Starn.
In addition, O’Hara said Planning Decisions led the public participation process for the initial redevelopment of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, including conducting telephone surveys and holding large, public meetings.
In some of these projects, O’Hara said his firm successfully reached out to key people and spoke with them at their homes.
“In a case like this, we haven’t worked with a fishing community, so we’ll have to figure out our approach,” he said.
Selectmen debated at the Sept. 6 meeting whether to include language in the agreement with Planning Decisions that would require the firm to reach out to the fishing community, but they ultimately decided against it.
Instead, when Town Administrator Kristi Eiane sent the agreement to the firm, she included a paragraph in a cover letter mentioning that the town specifically chose them because of their willingness to reach out to the fishermen.
O’Hara said the final report should be finished by late January or early February, though the town might want to take more time.
“We can do the work in this time, but they may want more time for comment,” O’Hara said.