Belfast Welcome Mat

Posted June 29, 2010, at 7:22 p.m.

Maine’s smaller cities and towns walk a tightrope when it comes to economic development. They want to be seen by developers as friendly and accommodating, but if they are too eager to please, the host municipalities may think they’re rolling out the red carpet, but find themselves becoming the doormat.

A case in point is what has unfolded in Belfast in recent years. In 2003, after the former Stinson Seafood plant on the city’s waterfront closed for good, a New Jersey developer unveiled his plan to convert the 100-year-old sardine cannery building into condominiums, shops and restaurants with an adjacent marina. City planning committees and the City Council agreed to help the developer, and entered into an agreement with the developer that would permit his project if certain amenities were built. For various reasons, none of which can be blamed on the city, the project languished, and the original developer has long been out of the picture. The current owner of the property has failed to make good on promises, city officials say, including tearing down the now partially demolished building.

The status of the building is especially irksome for city officials because the former cannery sits in a prominent place on the waterfront, adjacent to the old Route 1 bridge, which has been converted into a pedestrian path with some $4 million of local, state and federal funds. The city also wants to develop a footpath that follows the waterfront leading to the bridge, but it now would have to skirt the old cannery.

The city has taken the bold but correct action by filing lawsuits against the owner of the property that demand authority to tear down the cannery and seek $300,000 the developers promised to provide to build a fishermen’s pier near the structure.

Belfast officials were excited at the potential the original plan held. Though Main Street, which extends downhill to the city’s wharf and boating facilities, is thriving, officials liked the idea of extending the commercial district perpendicular to Main Street toward the old Route 1 bridge. Now, the complex is an eyesore and could be dangerous.

Belfast has an unusual history with dormant and decrepit industrial buildings. When the last of its poultry processing plants closed in the late 1980s, the hulking, rambling cinder block and cement building dominated a portion of the waterfront for more than five years. City officials were just begin-ning to think about condemnation proceedings to force the owner to tear down the property when credit-card lender MBNA, which had opened offices in the city, purchased and demolished the building, then gave it to the city for a park. Few communities are so lucky to have such a benefactor.

The best outcome for Belfast is not that the property become another park, but that a viable developer convert the site into a commercial enterprise. Filing lawsuits against private enterprises is sometimes the only way to bring about this outcome.

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