Public has questions about proposed Freeport movie theater

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FREEPORT — Some residents and business owners are questioning the proposal for a tax break to finance a six-screen movie theater on Mill Street in Freeport Village Station.

Al Yebba, chief operating officer of Berenson Associates, developer of Freeport Village Station, and Mark Benvenuto, director of the theater division of Belmont Capital, the potential operator of the theater, held a public informational meeting about their plans on Monday, July 19.

They said the 756-seat theater would require renovation and reconfiguration of the Freeport Village Station parking garage, and the loss of thirty-three parking spots.

Belmont Capitol, part of what used to be the Boston Culinary Group, owns 20 other theaters from Bangor to New Jersey, ranging from art houses to multi-plex cinemas. The six-screen theater proposed for Freeport fits the local demographic perfectly, Benvenuto said. He estimated it will bring in 120,000 customers a year and could increase Village Station business between 20 percent and 50 percent.

The theater project will cost about $2.5 million, Yebba said. The company is asking the town for a $750,000 tax break in the form of an amendment to the current $17.5 million, 20-year Tax Increment Financing district approved for the parking garage.

“In order for this theater to come together, we need this TIF,” Yebba said. “Without it there will be no theater.”

Yebba said Berenson Associates sought financing through traditional business loans, revenue bonds and by taking out a second mortgage, but nothing panned out.

“We need a non-traditional financial structure,” Yebba said. “This TIF is intended to help us with the additional expenditure of restructuring the garage space.”

Town Planner Donna Larson said TIFs are a way to earmark property taxes for economic development, infrastructure maintenance or other specific town uses. With new development, the town can shelter new taxes generated by the increase in valuation on the property from county taxes, revenue sharing and state aid to education.

She said for every $1 million, $500 is sheltered from county taxes, $500 from revenue sharing, and $6,200 from state aid to education.

In addition, Yebba said TIFs are designed to support projects that help to create jobs, solidify commercial and property values which solidifies the tax base.

“This TIF is a revenue-neutral way to do this,” he said.

But some of the business owners at the meeting disagreed with Yebba, and questioned why Freeport would consider a project that banks will not support financially.

Business owner Marg Migliaccio also questioned the necessity of the theater in its proposed location.

“We have a beautiful area along Route 1 … ,” she said. “It would be ideal to develop there.”

Yebba said several locations were considered for the theater, but its proximity to the garage, its synergy with the downtown area, and the potential arrival of the Amtrak Downeaster in the Depot Street neighborhood made the Village Station garage ideal for the theater location.

Residents also questioned the longevity and security of the project, the necessity of six screens as opposed to four, and the responsibility of any additional cost for police and emergency medical service associated with the theater.

Andrew Arsenault, a Route 1 resident, requested the public be shown “hard numbers” before the town makes a decision on the TIF amendments.

“I want to wait until we have more facts,” he said.

The Town Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed TIF on Aug. 10 at 7 p.m.

While the theater is dependent on the TIF receiving Town Council approval, posters promoting the theater already line windows of the Village Station where the theater would be built.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 81-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net

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