MACHIAS, Maine — The future of the Washington County Development Authority, founded in 2000 to deal with surplus government property and to seek grants for economic development, hinges 100 percent on a bill before the Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Development.
The agency has struggled with its role and identity for months and recently hired an executive director to assist the trustees.
WCDA trustee Normand LaBerge said Tuesday that three economic development projects had been brought to WCDA, and all three had to be rejected because the agency has no funding. LR404, sponsored by Rep. James Parker of Veazie, would give WCDA the authority to issue bonds and make loans, similar to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority and the Loring Development Authority.
The trustees voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to endorse Parker’s bill but they also admitted that the bill’s chances of passage are slim, since WCDA has no property or collateral, as do the other two agencies.
“If Jim Parker’s bill is not approved, there is no real purpose for WCDA to exist,” LaBerge said.
But several other trustees opted for a more long-range vision. “You are saying wait for [the funding] to come,” Trustee and County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said. “I’m saying, go out there and get it.”
Fitzgerald suggested that while the bill winds its way through the Legislature, WCDA should get proactive. “We need to turn it around. We need to say we are not asking for money but we are asking for [governmental] support to pressure businesses and retailers to come here.”
WCDA should ask itself “What do we need here to make life better?” and work toward those answers, Fitzgerald said. “We are at a crossroads here. We need to do something or cease to exist,” she said. “We need to get this show on the road.”
Trustee Brent Hartford agreed, saying WCDA needed Gov. Paul LePage’s support for the drive for jobs. “For example, we could buy the former Rite Aid building [in Machias] and lease it out,” he said. “But we can’t even go out for proposals until we hear support from the governor’s mouth.”
But Fitzgerald argued that governmental support for WCDA will be easier to obtain if the group is actively working on economic development.
“A viable project will show the administration the value of the bill,” Fitzgerald said.
WCDA agreed to set up a “business attraction” committee to begin work immediately, seeking retailers and other businesses for Washington County. Hartford agreed to serve as chairman.
The trustees also agreed to invite bankers from three or more of the banks in Washington County to WCDA’s May meeting. “We need to ask them ‘What are you seeing regarding economic development in Washington County?’” Fitzgerald said.