ROCKLAND, Maine — The Maine Lobster Festival is an economic engine for the Rockland area, city officials acknowledged Monday night while continuing their annual debate over whether to charge the volunteer organization for use of city waterfront property.
In the end, the council voted 4-1 to waive $12,000 in fees that would normally be associated with the use of Harbor, Buoy, and Mildred Merrill parks for the week that the event uses the properties for set up, the festival and clean-up time.
The 65th Annual Maine Lobster Festival is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 1, through Sunday, Aug. 5.
“It’s pretty amazing the number of people who come here from all over for the festival. We have to look at the big picture of what the festival does not just for Rockland but the area as a whole,” Councilor William Clayton said.
He said the council often looks at something successful and asks why it can’t get more money from it.
The festival is a boon to the hospitality industry, local shops and cab companies, he said.
Councilor Eric Hebert also cited the benefits to Rockland from the festival.
“It’s Rockland’s festival. It does our community a great service not just with economic activity but with what it gives back to the community,” Hebert said.
Tim Carroll, president of the Rockland Festival Board, said the organization donated more than $70,000 for various causes during the past year including the city recreation center and the schools. He said those donations offer relief to property taxpayers.
Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson opposed the waiver, saying she represents constituents who feel the festival should pay the $12,000. She said the organization should pay the fees as any other organization and it could then forego donating $12,000.
Maggie Trout of Rockland presented a letter to councilors stating that the city should not approve any fee waivers without fiscally and ethically sound reasons and must establish specific guidelines.
“The Maine Lobster Festival is Rockland, Maine, as Rockland, Maine, is the Maine Lobster Festival,” Carroll said.
He said he never fails to meet someone who is familiar with the festival when he travels the country. He said during this past winter, he was at a barbecue restaurant in San Diego, Calif., and was wearing a festival volunteer T-shirt when someone stopped him and mentioned having attended the Rockland event.
While saying that the waiver was a reasonable request, Carroll also pointed out the donations made in the past year and the more than $20,000 in direct costs the organization pays to the city for police coverage and other municipal services used during the festival so there is no direct cost to the community.
Councilor Larry Pritchett praised the effort of the festival but said he would like a long-term solution to the issue of the fee waivers. He said one option could be to direct fees from the festival to the downtown tax increment financing district which could be used for possible future redesigns of Harbor Park.
Also on Monday night, the council discussed changing the fees for use of city waterfront properties. The Harbor Management Commission submitted a package of recommended fee hikes to the council. For example, the daily cost of using Harbor Park would increase from $1,200 to $1,500 per day. The cost of using Buoy Park would increase from $750 to $800 per day. The use of Mildred Merrill Park would increase from $200 to $250 per day and the use of all three adjacent parks would jump from $2,100 to $2,500 per day.
Councilors, however, postponed a vote on the increases after learning that the Harbor Commission had not solicited input from organizations that use the harbor facilities such as the Lobster Festival and the North Atlantic Blues Festival.