THOMASTON, Maine — A proposal by town officials to create a downtown business group to spur improvements along the Main Street was met with sharp criticism from several people who said it would lead to government mandates and dependency.
Town officials defended the plan as a simple one that would be decided by the citizens.
A public hearing was held Tuesday night at Watts Hall on whether the town should consider becoming a member of the Maine Downtown Network.
Before the meeting, fliers were distributed around town asking: “People of Maine, have you had enough? What if there was a plan to attack you in every aspect of your life? Would you want to know about it? Thomaston is at it again — now they’re trying to bring Smartgrowth ICLEI to Thomaston.
“Your local officials are quietly working to strip you of your property rights. Ask them why on Tuesday night as they try to bring in more unconstitutional mandates,” the flier stated and urged people to attend the meeting.
At the meeting, Selectman Jonathan Eaton said there were a lot of positive things going on in town, citing the possibility of a farmers market opening up in the downtown area next year.
“I see this [joining the Maine Downtown Network] as a way to harness our horses in the same direction,” Eaton said.
Town Manager Valmore Blastow said there have been several major improvements downtown, including new sidewalks, rehabilitation of apartments and a tax increment financing district approved by residents. The participation in the downtown network would provide the town with access to that organization’s experience and resources on how to continue the development of the downtown.
Community development director Rodney Lynch outlined the benefits of participation in the organization which would cost between $250 and $1,000 per year.
The proposal, however, was met with sharp criticism by some citizens and people from outside the community.
“There is a deeper ulterior motive you don’t hear of,” said Horatio Cowan III of Rockland.
He said that if the town accepts grants from the government, it will be hooked by the government and ultimately the government will try to restrict development as it has in Rockland.
“This is no more a local effort than the IRS,” Cowan said.
Thomaston officials said that the issue of joining the downtown network was a separate one from whether the town would later seek grants.
Cowan continued saying that if residents looked at the downtown network’s website, it would show them what the organization’s intent is. He said the town would ultimately see different requirements to restrict rights.
Dr. Edward Harshman said he was concerned about using government grants. He said farmers began taking handouts during the Great Depression and now spend more time doing paperwork than farming. He said people with hangnails now receive disability payments.
He said that the grants force people to rent their apartments to drug addicts.
Selectman Eaton said the discussion was “getting out in the weeds.” He asked for comments from Thomaston business owners on whether they want to join the organization.
Sheila Harshman said she was a business owner and she doesn’t want to take money and be told what to do.
Selectman Lee Ann Upham said if the time comes when there are more grants to apply for, the town can say no if it does not like the restrictions that come attached with the funding.
Lynch repeatedly said that any grants such as the Community Development Block Grants for improvements to the facades of downtown buildings was voluntary on the part of the property owners.
Patti Kristiansen, owner of Thomaston Yoga Studio, praised the work of town officials and said joining the downtown network was an opportunity to get advice from experts and gurus who know how to successfully develop a downtown.
Lynch said part of successful development is creating a brand for the downtown. Rockland, where he worked for 13 years as its Community Development director, is known as the downtown with restaurants and art galleries. Camden by the Sea is another community with a brand, he noted. Thomaston needs to determine its brand, be it antique shops or something else, he said.
The downtown network’s website states that in 2012, the towns of Calais, Camden, Castine and Kennebunk became members.
The network’s website states its mission is to “foster downtown revitalization that is dynamic and community-based and results in economic development, business growth, housing revitalization, historic preservation, and cultural enhancement.”
Lynch said the town can apply next year to join the group.
Before the town would decide on joining the organization, selectmen would create a committee consisting of residents and business owners to work on future plans.
Selectmen have not set a date for when they will vote on moving ahead with joining the downtown organization.