June 22, 2018
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Calais wrestles with best path to city revitalization, repairing buildings

By Tim Cox, BDN Staff

CALAIS, Maine – Which is better: the carrot or the stick?

It’s a question Calais officials have been dealing with for months as they have wrestled with the best planning tool that will get owners of dilapidated buildings in the city’s downtown area to make needed repairs to their structures.

Owners of business properties in Calais and other small communities have been caught — like homeowners — in a double whammy in recent years of declining property values and an economic downturn.

The issue of how to get property owners to maintain their buildings — either by providing them with incentives to help them or penalizing them to force them to take action — even divides business owners.

The city has a revitalization ordinance, and one thing people on both sides of the issue agree on is that it is ineffective.

Although some commercial buildings in the city’s downtown area sparkle, others are in obvious need of maintenance and repair. Two examples stand out with the buildings located in the same block and across the street from one another.

One vacant building, facing North Street near Main Street, is visibly leaning at a slight angle. The other, located across the street and housing the Urban Moose gift shop, has a deteriorating brick facade near the top of the three-story structure. The city has blocked off the sidewalk next to the building on the North Street side because pieces of brick have come loose and fallen. The sidewalk has been blocked off since the summer of 2012.

The city became affiliated last year with the Maine Downtown Center, a program of the Maine Development Foundation. The center helps communities to revitalize their downtown economy in part by preserving and enhancing appearance. A team of center officials visited Calais in August 2012, meeting with representatives of the Calais Downtown Revitalization Coalition, Calais in Motion and city staff. The center team issued a 20-page report with detailed recommendations the following October.

The coalition, whose members include business people as well as other citizens, subsequently asked the City Council to review the existing revitalization ordinance. The council referred the matter to the city’s Planning Board, which took up the matter in February.

The issue came to a head again during a meeting of the City Council in August. Councilor Anne Nixon brought up the leaning building on North Street.

“It’s unacceptable,” she declared.

The building has been braced in the interior and structurally is safe, said assistant manager Jim Porter, who is the city’s code enforcement officer.

“It’s an eyesore,” answered Nixon, “and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Councilor Alan Dwelley noted the revitalization ordinance is “still up in the air.”

“The people that own these buildings have to accept personal responsibility [and make needed repairs],” added Dwelley.

The coalition is co-chaired by Britani Pascarella, who, with her husband, Phil, owns the Urban Moose and the building containing it, and Meredith Snowman, another downtown merchant.

Pascarella declined to be interviewed to discuss the controversial topic.

There is some good news related to the controversy. The city was awarded $250,000 in community development block grant funds in May. The monies will be used to help property owners make improvements and repairs to building facades. Property owners may be eligible for a grant of up to $25,000. The grants are matching, meaning that a property owner would have to match a $25,000 award with $12,500. City officials met with property owners last week to brief them on the grant program and the application process.

Hopefully the Pascarellas can obtain a grant that would help them make repairs to their building, said Porter.

“I realize some buildings need a lot more work than that,” he added.

The city also has a revolving loan fund to make low-interest loans available to businesses for the purpose of helping to create jobs.

The city is not interested in pursuing legal proceedings to acquire downtown properties, said Porter.

“Nobody wants that,” he said. “If we just use the stick, we’re going to be in court.”

The buildings in question are owned both by Calais residents and others who live out of town, according to Porter.

The original revitalization ordinance was adopted in 1996. Porter reviewed properties within about a year, and the city obtained “good compliance” with the measure, he said. However, the ordinance lacked a “trigger” to require evaluations in the future, he noted. Since then, several buildings have changed owners.

Another challenge in recent years, Porter observed, is the decline in property values. At the same time, in some cases the cost of repairs has escalated as buildings have further deteriorated. Some services simply cost more because of the city’s distance from major urban areas, noted Porter. For example, there are no businesses in the region that service elevators, he said. The closest company would be in Bangor.

The Planning Board began considering revisions to the city’s revitalization ordinance in February and began a review in earnest the following month. As directed by the board April 9, Porter drafted a statement to send to the council indicating the progress to date and the intended direction of the planners. Meanwhile, the City Council was planning a public hearing on a proposal to repeal the revitalization ordinance, which it held April 11.

The City Council adopted an emergency measure April 25 that temporarily amended several portions of the ordinance. Those amendments were easier on property owners. For example, they extended from 30 days to 90 days a response from a property owner to a notice for corrective action, increased the threshold of expenditure that requires a review from $1,000 to $7,500, and suspended penalties. The emergency provisions were approved by the City Council again in July for an additional 90 days.

The Planning Board continued work on revisions until it voted unanimously on May 21 to send its proposal to the City Council, but it made additional suggestions for changes at its July 15 meeting. Those recommendations are awaiting action by a council committee before going to the full City Council.

Gail Wahl, who owns a building on the city’s main street and also serves on the city’s Planning Board, acknowledged that her property is in need of repairs. However, she lost tenants of the building in recent years during the economic downturn.

“I just have not had the funds [to address the most significant repairs],” she said.

Wahl noted that some commercial buildings are in no condition to be sold and must be stabilized first.

“Right now we’re trying to do the carrot approach,” said Wahl, provide incentives that will encourage building owners to make needed improvements.

“I’m hoping as the economy picks up, things will happen, too,” added Wahl.

According to Snowman, even members of the coalition feel both ways on the issue of the city ordinance.

“It doesn’t work because it has never been enforced,” she said. “You have all these laws written down, and if they’re not enforced, then they don’t work.”

The staff of the Maine Downtown Center did not recommend a model revitalization ordinance, according to Snowman.

In terms of effective revitalization ordinances on the books in other communities?

“There’s not a whole lot out there that we could find,” she said.

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