Wind farm tax program fueling development

By Sharon Kiley Mack, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 26, 2010, at 11:56 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — There’s an old hunting lodge on Route 9 in Township 24 — just west of Beddington — that used to be a remote getaway for the famous.

Wilderness Lodge was built in 1963 by Jackie Gleason — yes, that Jackie Gleason — and stories that have been passed on to the new owners, Lisa and Matt Whitegiver, relate that “Rat Pack” stars and famous athletes, such as football great Joe Namath, found escape from their overly public lives at the remote lodge.

But the building fell on hard times, changed hands several times, and had been abandoned for years when the Whitegivers began their quest to purchase it.

“It is an older building, and the banks were not interested,” Lisa Whitegiver said Friday. “We never would have been able to purchase it conventionally.”

By using $15,000 from a Washington County program, however, the couple was able to leverage $65,000 in other funding to purchase the lodge and surrounding land. The lodge should be up and running by next hunting season, they said.

“We couldn’t have done it without the county program,” Lisa Whitegiver said. “That was the last piece of the puzzle we needed.”

Still in its infancy, the tax financing program already is returning $11 in economic activity to the county for every $1 invested.

The program’s premise is simple: Take part of the taxes for First Wind’s Stetson Mountain wind power projects near Danforth and create a grant and loan program in the county’s 34 unorganized townships.

The program creates a Tax Increment Financing District for First Wind at Stetson Mountain, allowing the company to plow some of the money that would have gone into taxes back into company development. The county, meanwhile, takes 40 percent of those taxes and develops itself.

In its first six months, the Washington County TIF Grant Program has invested $195,410 and expects to see a countywide yield of $2.5 million in economic activity.

“This is pretty exciting,” Dean Preston, manager of Washington County’s unorganized townships, said Friday. “This program is to the county’s advantage and is exactly what we wanted. It is absolutely a success.”

So far, funding has been granted to purchase the hunting lodge, develop a tidal turbine, plan for resource development, purchase high-tech equipment, improve public access to conservation lands and build an educational dormitory and center.

The Washington County Commissioners were the first county officials to apply for the Maine Department of Economic Development’s TIF program, said Diane Smith-Halkett of Sunrise County Economic Council, the program’s administrating agency.

In 2009, the TIF district was created near Danforth to assist First Wind in creating the Stetson I and Stetson II wind farms.

Smith-Halkett said the total estimated income to the county over the next 30 years would be greater than $13 million. For 2010, $550,000 is expected to be deposited.

As these funds accumulate, Smith-Halkett said, the county has an opportunity to spur major economic development and nature-based tourism.

The TIF funds are divided into five categories: nature based tourism grants (up to $40,000 per year); economic development planning grants (up to $40,000 per year); commercial revolving loans (up to $50,000 per year); capital project funds (up to $520,000 per year); and county matches for economic development grant programs (up to $40,000 per year.)

Smith-Halkett said each applicant must provide complete information, including financial data, and each application is reviewed by a committee that consists of Preston, Smith-Halkett, County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald, County Commission Chairman Chris Gardner and SCEC Director Harold Clossey.

“It is a thorough but fair process,” Clossey said. Once funded, each recipient must provide quarterly progress reports.

Since it is a county program, final approval must come from the commissioners.

“The commissioners like to fund those kinds of projects that benefit beyond just the [unorganized territories],” Smith-Halkett said.

One of those would be the construction of cell phone towers that could be used by all in the county.

“This is a concept project,” Preston said. “We are still working with who we would partner with on this.”

There are at least eight new projects in the pipeline for a total of more than $240,000, Smith-Halkett said. She said Preston is also working on four or five projects that the county would sponsor.

“We appear to be moving into a more serious level of funding,” she said. “As people see the examples of success, they will be joining in.”

Preston said the program only has been handing out the money for six months, but it has already proven successful.

“We’ll be looking at the one year mark for a full assessment,” Preston said. “But I am looking forward to the next six months. There are some very interesting projects ready to take off.”

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In the TIF project’s first six months, more than $2.5 million in immediate economic activity has been leveraged with the seven projects already approved. The TIF fund’s investment so far has been $195,410.

Those projects underway include:

• $10,000 to the Forest Society of Maine to help fund a study of the Baskahegan watershed to plan nature-based tourism improvements in northern Washington County. Total budget is $20,000. One job created.

• $9,760 to Sunrise County Solar of Trescott for equipment purchase for high-tech energy audits and expansion into home wind turbines and solar energy panels. Total budget is $28,510. One and a half jobs created.

• $10,000 to Tidewalker Engineering of Trescott to research a small tidal power project in Trescott. Total project budget is $45,000. Two jobs retained.

• $15,000 to Eagle Mountain Guide Service of Otis to assist with the purchase of Wilderness Lodge in Township 24. Total project budget is $80,000. Retained two and a half jobs and enabled the per diem hiring of local guides.

• $100,000 over three years to Cobscook Community Learning Center of Trescott to help build Heartwood Lodge on the center’s campus. Total project budget is $2.2 million. Five new jobs created along with the hiring of local construction personnel.

• $1,150 to Clean Earth Farms of Jonesboro to study the need for raised-bed gardens by UT residents. One half-time position created.

ä $49,000 to the Downeast Lakes Lake Trust based in Grand Lake Stream for road and culvert improvements in the Wabassus Lake Tract in Township 43, part of a joint effort with the Maine Bureau of Park Lands to preserve public access. Total project budget is $284,785. Ten construction jobs created and 40 guiding and wood harvesting jobs supported.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/11/26/business/wind-farm-tax-program-fueling-development/ printed on August 21, 2014