Topsham developer backs MRRA bill that divides state, local officials
BRUNSWICK — One of Brunswick Landing's major developers is supporting a bill that would give Brunswick and Topsham more input into redevelopment of the former U.S. Navy base.
Topsham-based Priority Real Estate Group was joined by local officials and residents in its support for LD 1476, "An Act To Protect Local Input in Economic Development and Redevelopment Efforts," at a legislative committee hearing Monday morning in Augusta.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would expand the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority board by two trustees appointed by Brunswick and Topsham.
"It is essential to our success that the MRRA board, town and (Maine Department of Economic and Community Development) work together to coordinate their efforts for the development plan for Brunswick Landing," Priority Group spokeswoman Kerri Prescott said. "... Without this representation on this deliberative body, we are ignoring the concerns of these two communities."
Priority Group is working on $27 million worth of investments at Brunswick Landing, including a school for autistic children, a light manufacturing facility and a potential commercial storage facility.
Jim Howard, chief executive officer and president of Priority Group, previously said that improving relationships between local, state and redevelopment officials prompted him to move forward with the projects.
Prescott echoed Howard's sentiment on Wednesday, but said the bill could make an even better situation for economic development.
"We feel that the bill does exactly what the business community, town and community need, which is to promote communication," Prescott said. "We deal directly with town officials on most days and it's important to keep that communication open."
LD 1476 also received support Monday from residents, former and current town councilors, and business owner Art Boulay.
Boulay, who owns two businesses in downtown Brunswick, said this was the first time he ever felt compelled to express his support for a bill in the statehouse. He said it's no coincidence that relations between the town and MRRA went awry when Town Manager Gary Brown wasn't reappointed to the board after 2009.
"Since then there have been nearly daily headlines about tension between the town and the MRRA board," Boulay said.
Andy Cashman, a lobbyist for Brunswick, said a new poll conducted by Pan Atlantic SMS Group found that nearly 89 percent of respondents in Bath, Bowdoinham, Brunswick, Freeport, Harpswell, Lisbon Falls and Topsham strongly support the bill.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was one of the two officials who expressed opposition to the bill. He was joined by written testimony against the legislation from Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick.
"Given the regional focus, it would be inappropriate to give only two of the impacted communities a direct seat on the board," Gerzofsky said. "A regional redevelopment effort is only successful if it is truly regional in focus, and not unnecessarily held back by the individual interests of individual communities."
Gerzofsky in 2011 introduced legislation that would have prohibited Brown or any employees of elected officials from being appointed to the MRRA board.
Brian Whitney, a DECD spokesman, said his agency opposes the bill because the town appointments wouldn't face the same level of legislative scrutiny. Under current Maine statute, the governor's board appointments must be confirmed by the state Senate.
"Under the current statute, (the towns are) allowed to nominate their economic development managers to the board," Whitney said. He noted that Topsham Economic and Community Development Director John Shattuck is a MRRA trustee.
Denise Clavette, Brunswick's business development manager, later pointed out that the Town Council nominated her in 2012, but the governor declined her appointment.
Earlier in the hearing, Daughtry said the argument behind her bill is supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Community Guide to Base Reuse, which says that "community leaders are essential to help ensure that the economic adjustment process."
In addition, she said, many other development authorities across the country allow direct board appointments by towns.
"Giving Brunswick and Topsham two direct appointees would fit perfectly within the Department of Defense's guidelines," Daughtry said. "We need to make sure that community leaders have a seat on the MRRA board."