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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council may be asked to consider a partnership with Topsham to develop a regional business park if renewed efforts to build one there are successful.
The prospect of a regional business park suffered two significant setbacks this summer, first when Topsham determined that a 140-acre parcel designated for the development was not economically feasible because of environmental constraints.
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The second occurred when the Brunswick Town Council killed a deal for an alternate site along Route 1, citing costs and the Topsham Board of Selectmen’s reluctance to ask voters to join a partnership.
Now, after owners of the Topsham parcel announced a new plan to make the 140-acre site viable, leaders in both towns could soon be asked to enter a cost-revenue-sharing agreement.
Park advocates in both communities have said a regional park would not only allow the towns to share costs, but could make business park development more attractive for state and federal funding.
While other municipalities like Harpswell, Freeport and Bowdoinham have expressed interest in joining the effort, participation by both Brunswick and Topsham is seen as vital to the park’s success.
The complexities of a partnership – including cost sharing and control – are vast. However, park advocates argue that a poor economic climate added with impact from the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station could create a sense of urgency that will prompt both towns to find common ground.
“I think creating jobs will be one of council’s primary goals next year,” said council Chairwoman Joanne King, who has frequently advocated for other regional efforts with Topsham. “If that means being involved in a regional partnership, I would think the council would want to seriously consider it.”
John Shattuck, Topsham’s director of economic development, agreed, saying Monday that Topsham was already seeking Brunswick’s participation in renewed efforts to develop Bob Williams’ property near Route 201 and Route 196. Shattuck acknowledged the challenges of forging a timely collaboration agreement, but said neither community could afford “failing to try.”
“Some of the business closures around Brunswick have gotten some people thinking,” said Shattuck, referring to the recent shuttering of Grand City Variety and Bookland. “If we’re not making an effort to change the equation when things are bad then how can anyone expect us to be ready when the economy improves?”
Shattuck also said he believes that the Lewiston-Auburn business park model provides a template for a Mid-Coast collaborative agreement. While the L-A model took years of negotiations to move from concept to reality, Shattuck said the two communities were pioneers. Topsham and Brunswick, he said, could learn from the L-A experience.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing a regional business park is political. Brunswick in particular has often struggled to convince some residents and town leaders that a park is necessary. When the Town Council killed the deal for a park along Route 1, the majority of councilors said it was due to cost considerations. Others, meanwhile, rejected the deal because of the park’s location outside the growth zone.
While a Topsham location may erode some of that skepticism, leaders in both communities will be forced to persuade residents to pay for a park during a time of shrinking budgets and state revenue sharing. Brunswick has already embarked on a review of its capital improvement program in anticipation of difficult economic times.
Still, park advocates argue that neither community can weather the economy and BNAS closure without economic development.
Shattuck said traditional fall-backs such as retail development were too susceptible to the peaks and valleys of the national economy. Other business such as manufacturing, he said, not only offer more stability, but better jobs and the prospect for growth.
“There are businesses out there right now that are expanding, even in this economy,” he said.
But Shattuck said neither Brunswick nor Topsham have the space to accommodate such growth, nor could either town afford to wait for actual commitments from businesses. The region needs space at the ready.
“Once a business decides to expand or move they want to do it in three to six months,” Shattuck said. “If we keep waiting for a scenario where a business tells us they want to move here and then we’ll build a park, nothing will ever happen. They’ll just go somewhere else.”
Residents in both communities can expect to hear such arguments as efforts to develop the Topsham park gather momentum.
While the Williams property faces significant hurdles – specifically a strict interpretation of vernal pool law by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – both Shattuck and Brunswick Interim Town Manager Gary Brown expressed confidence that new plans would make the project viable.
In addition, Brown said, the Brunswick Economic Development Corp. and Topsham Development have already met to establish the framework for a regional development agreement. Brown said much of that effort occurred earlier this year when the Williams property was first considered.
Now, Shattuck said, the two entities are drafting an agreement to be considered by both towns’ legislative bodies.