ROCKPORT, Maine — Some town officials expressed hope Wednesday that the more than 40 percent downtown vacancy rate will soon be a thing of the past for the affluent coastal community.
The optimism came after residents voted Tuesday in favor of expanding Rockport’s tax increment financing, or TIF, districts, although the ballot question generated heated controversy among local officials.
“We’re anxious that this TIF district will give us the tools to revitalize development downtown sooner rather than later,” said Robert Duke, chair of the Select Board. “We’re very pleased that the voters supported it. I think that most of them understood what we were trying to do.”
Residents voted 1,001 to 652 to add the former Rockport Elementary School to the existing Route 1 TIF district, and also voted 974 to 672 in favor of creating a new district downtown.
TIFs allow municipalities to capture taxes from increased property values in certain districts, then reinvest the captured taxes in economic development, capital projects or transit. Rockport officials would like to use these funds to redevelop the former elementary school, to improve sidewalk and “streetscapes,” and to revitalize the traditional village areas, said Town Manager Robert Peabody.
But while those goals may be good ones, not everyone believes TIF districts will benefit the town or that residents were given enough information about the districts to make an educated decision on the ballot.
“People don’t understand TIFs. They’re so complex,” said Robert Nichols, a former Select Board member who now serves on the town’s budget committee. “I was pushing for it not to be passed. I felt it was not the right thing for the town.”
Nichols, who has called the district a $7 million piece of pork, said he thinks the town should have allowed the budget committee to make a recommendation about the TIF districts for the ballot.
“To me, really, the unfortunate thing is that the process of protecting the citizens has been broken,” Nichols said. “I don’t know where it’s going to go. The next step, if we want to challenge it, is a lawsuit.”
But as that would mean the town would essentially sue itself, “we really can’t take that step,” he said.
Duke said the Select Board had consulted the town attorney to ensure Rockport had correctly followed its charter when writing the ballot articles.
“For anyone to think that the Select Board tries to sneak things through — that’s just not how things work,” he said.
Nichols thinks TIF districts make sense for “blighted” areas but that in Rockport it means the town will essentially favor one company over another by providing tax rebates of as much as 75 percent during the first years the district exists. The Leucadia National Corp. owns six properties in the downtown district.
Rockport resident and economic development consultant Chris Shrum said that kick-starting investment through TIF is crucial for Rockport, especially in its darkened downtown district, which had fire damage a year ago and has a vacancy rate he estimated to be at least 40 percent.
“I would argue that downtown Rockport probably does fit the legal definition of a blighted area,” Shrum said.
Residents also voted 1,384 to 293 to approve an amendment to the Coastal Waters and Harbor Ordinance on mooring tackle and also by 1,127 to 561 for a $100,00 Community Development Block Grant application on behalf of Farmers Fare.
Voter turnout was 69.5 percent, according to the town office.