BELFAST, Maine — After navigating through some rough political and funding waters recently, city officials have given the go-ahead for the l ong-planned $1.5 million Belfast Harbor Walk project.
City councilors unanimously voted at last week’s regular meeting to borrow $800,000 from the Maine Municipal Bond Bank and up to $400,000 on a bond anticipation note to pay for the walkway. Once built, the pathway will stretch more than half a mile along the waterfront and link such local sights as the Armistice Bridge, Belfast Harbor and Steamboat Landing park for walkers, cyclists and joggers via pavement and even a wooden boardwalk that runs over the water by the Front Street Shipyard.
Councilor Michael Hurley said Tuesday that the walkway should be completed by late next spring.
“Belfast has been moving in this direction for nearly 30 years, since we first said we’d be changing our direction from being a chicken processing plant,” he said. “The Harbor Walk is absolutely going to be the biggest thing we’ve done to facilitate people getting close to the water. Most people in Belfast do not have oceanfront property, but they will have an enjoyable public place where they can visit the waterfront year-round in their town.”
The future of the walkway was jeopardized earlier this summer, after Gov. Paul LePage froze the city’s part of a $25 million bond that was approved by Maine voters in 2010. Officials in Belfast had applied for and received a $400,000 Communities for Maine’s Future matching grant last year, and had incorporated that sum as they budgeted for the waterfront walkway.
But when they learned in June that the funds have been stalled for two years, they had to scramble to figure out a funding alternative for the project.
Because Belfast had already spent about $220,000 on engineering and design for the Harbor Walk, City Manager Joe Slocum indicated last month that the community likely would make up for the shortfall with a municipal bond.
That $400,000 bond anticipation note can be repaid whenever the grant money is released, according to city staff.
That decision to borrow, however, was met with vigorous objection from some residents, including Blaine Richardson, who recently made an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for the 2nd District congressional seat.
“The country’s broke, the state’s broke and Belfast doesn’t know that we’re in dire straits,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not against the walk — the problem is the timing.”
Richardson said that borrowing money to make a paved pathway in a year that the city’s property tax bills have increased — though mostly due to jumps in the county and school budgets — is a bad idea.
“I showed up at the very beginning and expressed my concerns,” he said. “The city can’t budget enough money to take care of the plants in the parks that we already have. That concerns me. It isn’t right — it isn’t proper.”
He said that there won’t be a “payback” for taxpayers on the Harbor Walk.
“Is it nice? Yeah. Does it make us feel good? Yeah. But you know what, you can walk already,” Richardson said. “Why can’t we do the walkway using private funds?”
However, construction will begin in the fall and the walkway will be ready to go in time for next summer, according to Hurley.
“And if you thought Belfast was busy this summer — just wait,” the city councilor said.