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Officials in Maine towns confused, frustrated by LePage’s freeze on grants

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage in Rockland on Saturday, March 3, 2012.
By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to freeze parts of a bond issue approved by Maine voters in 2010 that would have provided money for a number of downtown redevelopment projects across the state is being met with questions and frustration.

Eleven communities were notified in September 2011 that they had been awarded grants totaling $3.5 million that were to be matched by private investment of more than $11 million for downtown redevelopment. But last week, some of the communities that had been planning the projects for years were notified that the money is not available for an indeterminate time.

In Rockland, for example, the city was notified last year it had received a $400,000 grant from a program called Communities for Maine’s Future that was going to be used to redevelop the downtown Thorndike complex as well as improve the public parking lot in the rear of that downtown block.

But last week the city and its architects were informed of the freeze.

“This was very, very disturbing,” said Denis Lachman, lead architect for the Rockland project as well as projects in Bath and Norway.

The Rockland project was going to be matched by $3 million in private investment. Lachman said this project would open up more than 14,000 additional square feet of retail space in the rear section of the historic Thorndike building.

“This would be a major economic generator,” Lachman said.

The Thorndike is a three-story brick building on Main Street that was built in 1855. There are 49 apartments as well as retail space on the Main Street level.

The project involved renovation of the apartments and energy-efficiency renovations to the building. That work would have coincided with renovations to the rear parking lot including new sidewalks and lighting. The city has been working for the past year to get the project ready for construction.

In their application to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, city officials said the Thorndike’s “physical importance is evidenced by the curved three-story corner which dominates the intersection of Main Street and Tillson Avenue. Its social and cultural importance as the former grand hotel and infamous basement bar at the heart of downtown Rockland is well known.”

Rockland City Manager James Smith said he received a call last week from Maine Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais announcing that Rockland’s grant was frozen.

Smith said the downtown project is an important one.

A telephone call was made Monday to Gervais and has not been returned. Gov. Lepage earlier had told state agencies not to sell bonds that already had been approved by voters.

Last week, Belfast also was informed that its downtown project was put on hold. The city had been informed last September it was to receive $400,000 as part of a $1.5 million waterfront walkway.

Other communities that expected to receive grants were Bath, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Livermore Falls, Monmouth, Norway, Skowhegan, Unity and Winthrop.

In Bath, the city was to restore the former Customs House building in the downtown. In Norway, it was the $1.1 million restoration of the Opera House, and in Livermore Falls, the restoration of the Lamb Block.

In Monmouth, Town Manager Curtis Lunt said he has not heard anything from the governor’s office or the economic development office. He said work is largely done on the $700,000 renovation to the former Grange Hall that will be used both by the Theater at Monmouth as well as an emergency shelter for the town. Monmouth had been notified last year that it was receiving $400,000 for the project.

Lunt said he hopes that since the work is continuing the state will follow through and provide the money.

Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette said the city received word of the freeze by accident last week when a town employee was at a training session in Augusta. Skowhegan received a grant to repair its downtown parking lot with sidewalks and better lighting.

The town already has spent $24,000 on engineering for the project after the state announced the award last year.

Doucette said the town was ready to bid out the project last week when it received word of the freeze.

In Eastport, the town received a $250,000 grant to renovate two downtown buildings.

Hugh French, director of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art, said the institute purchased a building to be renovated after the state announced the city had received the grant.

“We have been moving forward, bids were awarded, contracts signed and scaffolding has gone up on the buildings,” French said.

In Dover-Foxcroft, the $400,000 would have been used both to build a quarter-mile Olde Mill River Walk from the hydro dam along the Piscataquis River to Moosehead Lane and then to West Main Street. The remainder would be to continue restoration of Central Hall, the former municipal building.

In Unity, the town voted in November to accept the state community development grant to put a new roof on the Unity Community Center and to repair two vacant downtown buildings — the old grammar school and 38 School St., according to the Unity Barn Raisers website. Unity Barn Raisers is administering the grant for the town, according to the town office.

A telephone message was left with Unity Barn Raisers.

Telephone calls were left with but not returned by town officials from the other communities that received grant notifications last year.

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