BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday voted 8-1 to become the master tenant of the train station and welcome center at Maine Street Station, the $23.5 million development that already has a significant financial investment from taxpayers.
The council’s decision is the penultimate step to authorizing a $220,000, five-year lease with JHR Development for a 2,100-square-foot train station. Final approval will follow some tweaks to the renewal terms and another council vote.
Brunswick has already committed close to $3 million to Maine Street Station. The joint development agreement has drawn significant criticism from residents who say the town has given away too much while assuming too much risk.
It’s unlikely the lease agreement will quell that sentiment.
Although councilors and town officials argued that a separate organization, the Brunswick Development Corp., was fronting the $220,000, some have rejected town officials’ claim that the money isn’t tied to taxpayers.
The majority of the BDC board is comprised of town staff. Its cash reserves came from the town’s purchase and sale of the Brunswick Technologies building in the industrial park.
The lease agreement also comes amid doubt about the future of the train station’s most important tenant, the Amtrak Downeaster. A track repair project that would expand the service from Portland to Brunswick has two potential funding sources, but the passenger service’s operations subsidy is scheduled to end Sept. 30.
The Downeaster had been a major concern for the council subcommittee that helped broker the lease agreement. The Maine Street Station Oversight Committee initially worried the town would be less likely to sign five potential subtenants – which included a car rental company and a bus company – if the Downeaster is delayed or doesn’t participate.
The issue was significant enough that some councilors vowed to pursue a termination clause if the train doesn’t happen. That clause is not included in the current lease agreement.
Acting Town Manager Gary Brown denied that the termination clause was a non-starter in the town’s negotiations with JHR.
“This isn’t just a train station,” Brown said. “I think the council saw the welcome center as a more permanent effort that will complement the train station. I also think the subcommittee and the majority of the council wanted to send a message that we believe in this (development).”
JHR has told the town that it has letters of intent for five subtenants.
“I’m convinced that some of them will sign on, regardless of whether or not the (Downeaster) arrives,” Brown said. “Those that don’t will be replaced by others.”
The Downeaster was not a major topic of discussion on Monday. However, a Brunswick delegation, which includes Bowdoin College President Barry Mills, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Baldacci on Friday to discuss the issue. Mills could bring influence to the meeting. His wife Karen once worked in Baldacci’s administration, and earlier this year she was appointed by President Barack Obama as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Nonetheless, there seemed to be an effort to play down the Downeaster on Monday. Councilor Margo Knight said the town already had a train, Maine Eastern Railroad, a seasonal excursion service that runs between Brunswick and Rockland.
Knight reiterated her belief that the station is a branding opportunity.
“Right now (Maine Eastern) passengers’ first and last impression of Brunswick is a dirt parking lot,” Knight said, referring to the train’s loading area on Cedar Street.
Councilors repeated Knight’s belief that the lease provided benefits exceeding its cost to taxpayers.
Councilor Karen Klatt, who grilled town staff on details in the lease, was the lone dissenting vote. But at least one other councilor, Vice Chairman Benet Pols, expressed some ambivalence about the agreement.
Pols, who joined four other councilors in a failed attempt to postpone Monday’s vote, questioned Knight’s assertion that the council had to seal the deal Monday or risk losing subtenants. Pols later asked Brown if Knight’s statement was accurate.
Brown said that subtenants were watching the council to see if it would get behind the development.
“There’s a sense in the community that this is a watershed moment for the council’s (support for economic development),” Brown said.
“So, to be clear, no tenant has said they’re going to back out if we don’t do this tonight,” Pols asked.
“No,” Brown responded.
Councilor Joanne King, part of the 5-4 majority that voted against postponing the vote, said delaying action would only bring out residents who were opposed “to everything.”
“This is an infill project, it’s downtown and we have picked it as our No. 1 economic development goal,” King said. “We need to stand behind it.”
Only a few residents spoke during public comment. Two of them, Louise Rosen and Sarah Brayman, said they were in favor of a train station, but expressed several concerns.
Rosen worried that the town’s plan to hire another organization to manage the train station had a predetermined outcome. The Brunswick Downtown Association has expressed interest in managing the property. Rosen said the BDA, a non-profit entity to which the town has recently stepped up its financial commitment, may not be prepared for the task.
Brown said the town would likely use a request for proposals process to find a property manager. Knight, whose husband serves on the BDA, said it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the organization would be the property manager.
Brayman, meanwhile, said Maine Street Station would be a “lousy” place for a welcome center without the Downeaster. She added that the town is in a stronger negotiating position to get better lease terms from JHR.
Klatt expressed concerns about the parking at Maine Street Station and questioned the shared parking arrangement that was endorsed by the Planning Board last year.
Parking issues have dogged the project. In April the Town Council applied for a federal grant that would help fund a $4 million, 150-space parking deck. On Tuesday Brown confirmed that the BDC had entered a purchase-and-sale agreement for a property on Weymouth Street for that purpose.
The property, which will be bought for $215,000, is about a block from Maine Street Station.