The cold shoulder East Machias selectmen gave Washington Academy when the school sought the town’s support for a loan guarantee is a story line that has been repeated across Maine. In this familiar scenario, the municipal government resents the large nonprofit that pays no property taxes but relies on town services. Town officials often also don’t like to see the “institutional creep” that happens when the nonprofit begins buying up properties, thereby making the downtown less diverse and seemingly less commercially vibrant.
This resentment has reared its head in Castine with Maine Maritime Academy; in Rockland with the Farnsworth Art Museum, Island Institute and Atlantic Challenge; in Searsport with the Penobscot Marine Museum; and in college towns such as Machias, Presque Isle and Fort Kent. In some towns, it’s a health care facility. In others, it’s government buildings such as courts and bureaucratic offices.
But if municipal officials take a broader view of their communities, they will understand that nonprofits do not drive out private enterprise but in fact usually help sustain it. Nonprofits such as a boarding school require a staff; they purchase materials and services, often from within 25 miles; and they often provide cultural and entertainment amenities such as lectures, exhibits and sporting contests, thereby making the community more attractive to residents and businesses.
This is not to suggest that selectmen should rubber-stamp every request that comes from a local nonprofit. Municipal officials are elected to protect their towns from liabilities, financial or otherwise. And nonprofit creep can begin to eclipse the diversity of downtown, resulting in ghost-town conditions in the off-season or during weekends.
But the case in East Machias, where there is no established downtown business district, does not resemble those legitimate concerns. The school is seeking a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan guarantee to build fine arts and wellness centers on the campus, to install a new septic system, and to refinance the loans on two dormitory buildings. Much of that money would flow into Washington County and would create or sustain jobs.
Selectmen should take the broader view and realize that Washington Academy has put the town on the map and that it generates substantial economic activity. If they truly are worried about the dearth of property taxes, they should use the school as a selling point to get new residents or businesses.