ELLSWORTH, Maine — The city will seek up to $400,000 in state grants to help fund the conversion of the former Knowlton School property to a city park.
City councilors on Monday authorized the grant application, but not without some misgivings.
The grant will seek $400,000 from the state Communities for Maine’s Future bond program.
According to City Planner Michelle Gagnon, the grant would go toward the estimated $1.4 million plan to remove the unoccupied Knowlton School building and convert the entire 4-plus acre property to a city park.
Councilors already have given initial approval to the park project and the city already has completed some of the work associated with the conversion, including the addition of sidewalks around the area. That work accounts for about $400,000 of the project, leaving about $1 million to be raised to complete it.
The building itself needs to be removed whether the park is built or not, City Manager Michelle Beal said. That will cost an estimated $75,000.
“We plan to appeal to several other sources [for funding], quite a few, in fact,” Beal said. “That will mean we will go to the community for a much smaller portion overall.”
The grant requires a one-to-one match, and council Chairman Gary Fortier asked if the property itself could count as a part of the city’s matching funds. Gagnon said she was unsure if it would qualify, since the property already is owned by the city. But she said she would look into it.
The matching funds were a source of concern for councilors. At Monday’s council meeting, they had adopted a 2012 budget that will result in a property tax increase next year and were in no mood to add anything more to the tax burden.
“We’re already raising the mill rate,” Councilor Matthew Boucher said. “My final vote will depend on what the city’s share is going to be. I’m not willing to go much beyond the $75,000 to fix the property.”
Gagnon stressed that while this grant is a very competitive one, if the city is successful, it could bring in additional support for the project.
“If we get this grant, it will make it easier to raise most of the money,” she said. “We feel our proposal is good enough, and we feel confident that we have a good chance of attracting other grants.”
Micki Sumpter, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment. Sumpter, who also serves on the fundraising committee for the project, said winning the grant would give the committee “more meat behind us” when seeking other funding for the project.
Still, councilors were supportive, but cautious. Fortier noted that the matching funds did not have to be tax dollars, but Councilor John Phillips was convinced that taxpayers would have to play a role in funding the project.
“I think this is a very good project and I hope it goes,” he said.
But, he added a caution.
“I’m willing to bet that before this is over, it’s going to involve tax dollars,” he said.
The Knowlton School and the Moore School became vacant when the new Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School was built. In addition to creating a park at the Knowlton School, the city is discussing the possibility of creating a senior citizen center at the Moore School.