Council on economic development: Belfast says “We can”

Posted June 22, 2011, at 2:10 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast has changed from being a community that says “We can’t” to a city that says “We can,” city councilors reflected Tuesday during a regular meeting at Belfast City Hall.

“It’s great. We can get it done,” said Mayor Walter Ash of both recent economic development changes and long-term projects. “People know throughout the midcoast about Belfast right now, and that’s something to be proud of.”

The council had just heard a whirlwind update from Belfast City Manager Joseph Slocum on economic development efforts in the city over the last year. The update marked the one-year anniversary of the hiring of Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge.

“It’s been a very busy year for Belfast, and I think a very productive year,” Slocum said.

He ticked off a list of the changes, which include:

  1. $150,000 in a Community Development Block Grant that Belfast has won in order to construct part of its planned Harbor Walk, along with $700,000 in other federal grants for other projects.
  2. The former Stinson Seafood sardine processing plant’s ongoing redevelopment into Front Street Shipyard, which owners intend to make a “world-class” facility.
  3. The purchase of the former Harborside Graphics building and Em Bee Cleaners by California environmental cleanup company Good Earthkeeping Organization.
  4. The city’s recent acceptance as a full-fledged Main Street Maine community.
  5. The opening or expansion of “at least” 42 businesses in the last year.
  6. The collaboration with Stockton Springs and Searsport in order to woo companies that are interested in becoming involved with Maine’s proposed new offshore wind industry.

“It’s fair to say I’ve experienced a dramatic increase in our visibility,” Slocum said. “It’s really nice, and it’s nice for the people in this community.”

The city manager added that the city won’t be able to rest on its development laurels but will have more and different types of work to do going forward.

“We’re going to have to try to set priorities,” Slocum said.

Councilor Eric Sanders said Belfast is changing in a positive way.

“I think these are all wonderful problems, if they come to fruition,” he said.

Councilor Mike Hurley requested that the city obtain good figures to do a sales tax analysis for the city.

The city manager also spoke briefly about another type of economic change: big-box stores. That can be a hot-button issue in Belfast, a community which a decade ago held a long and often contentious debate about whether such stores belonged in town.

“I know there’s interest in developing a large box store in Belfast,” Slocum said.

In other business, the council heard that the man who had purchased the former Pierce School in 2007 to create the Belfast Academy of Music is not able to continue maintenance on the three-story brick building.

William Ryan wrote the city in May to say that he will vacate the building “with all possible speed” if the city wants to repurchase it at the 2007 sale price, as per the purchase and sale agreement that was signed at that time.

“Income to the Academy has not met the expense of the property, and my personal reserves have been exhausted in paying the bills of both entities,” he wrote.

The councilors did not take action on the matter Tuesday night, but did begin to discuss the future of the school.

Councilor Roger Lee said he is inclined to have the city take a role in seeing what the building’s “ultimate disposition” will be.

He suggested there might be another school that could use the property or it could be used as in-town senior housing.

City planner Wayne Marshall said the building now is zoned to be a school, a single-family dwelling or a duplex structure.

But contract rezoning, which allows cities to deal with properties on a case-by-case basis, is an option, Marshall said.

Lee said that no matter what, the city should make sure the school is maintained over the winter.

“We don’t want ill to come to the building,” he said.

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