The future of a train stop in Kennebunk hit a wall Tuesday when the Board of Selectmen declined in a 4-3 vote to allow the Economic Development Committee to continue to explore potential sites and plans for the station.
At issue is the lack of land available for parking and potential expansion of the station from a simple seasonal platform to a full train station. Bob Georgitis, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, asked the board for approval for his group and the non-profit Kennebunk Development Corporation to work together to talk with nearby landowners and develop some plans for the selectmen and town residents to consider.
Several selectmen were vocal in their concern that building the station, and paying for ongoing maintenance would absorb town funds earmarked for more important needs.
In 2014 town voters approved $300,000 to develop a seasonal train stop, with an additional $800,000 available in grant form from the state if the station is completed by December of 2019.
Selectman Blake Baldwin said the needs in town have changed in the past three years.
“In the beginning this was a very simple project, it was a seasonal stop. This started as a simple idea, and now it’s getting grander and grander,” he said.
Baldwin asked Georgitis if he would prioritize the train station above some of the needs in town such as road improvements and the addition of police officers.
“This doesn’t replace the needs the community has. But $800,000 from the state makes this a good opportunity. I’m fine with stopping at the seasonal idea, but I think it’s short-sighted,” Georgitis said. “My opinion is that this could be good for the town in the long run.”
Kennebunk resident Lionel Menard told the board he voted for the $300,000 in 2014, noting that it was supposed to be a simple project.
“I want the simple platform. Anything else will take too long and cost too much money. If it becomes bigger and better, that’s a nice problem to have. But I think this board should honor the will of the people who voted for this,” Menard said.
Town Manager Mike Pardue said he spoke with Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter about the impact their train station has on their town budget.
“He is faced with what is a now a 20-year-old train station, and they are struggling a bit with how they are going to maintain and shoulder all that cost,” Pardue said. “Sitting in the town manager’s seat, those are big concerns for me.”
Dick Morin, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, used a favorite analogy of his in describing his belief that the train station would be too costly for the town.
“I believe with absolute certainty that his is nothing more than a Christmas puppy,” he said. “It’s going to be warm and fuzzy when we first get it, and then we start taking it for walks, and we have to feed it, and we are going to be non-stop caring for this. There has not been one discussion from the inception of this whole concept of the cost of operation. I see this as a great opportunity for Kennebunkport, and I don’t see anyone sitting here in the room with us.”
Baldwin, who served as chairman of the EDC before becoming a selectman, apologized to Georgitis for taking what he called “a left-hand turn on this.”
“Things have changed in the last three years, they’ve moved on us. We didn’t have a school bond and a pending sewer bond coming up,” Baldwin said. “We need to decide, what are the things that we need to do that are critically important to the ongoing business of this town, and what are the things that we would like to do. There might be a better use of the a quarter million dollars than throwing it down the train hole. If we want to kill the project now, and stop the bleeding this might be the time to do it.”
Morin said that even though the EDC would not be spending funds on the exploration, he felt it was a waste of town resources and time.
“We are spending brain time. I think we should pull the plug on this now and move on to the other things we have on our plate,” he said.
Selectman Shiloh Schulte said he would like to see a train station in some fashion, “but I think this is a good example of wants and needs.”
Schulte made a motion before the board to have the Economic Development Committee work to explore options to bring before the board, but the motion was defeated by a 4-3 margin.
Interim Economic Development Director Jim Black expressed dismay that the board halted the work of the EDC and KDC on the train station.
“We can have the conversations and run a cost benefit analysis and bring back a set of value based decisions that you guys can make, and if the opinions are what they are then that would be the time to formally cancel this deal. This is a premature termination, but it is one that you took at this point,” Black said. “At this point you’ve made your decision, and are essentially driving a stake in the heart of the train activity.”
Finance Director Joel Downs said roughly $56,000 of the $300,000 has been spent already on engineering and survey work in the initial process, and the board discussed what to do with those funds but did not make a decision Tuesday.
Morin asked Pardue to consult with the town legal counsel and add the issue to the agenda for the next board meeting.
The next meeting of the Board of Selectmen will be at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 12 in the Town Hall meeting room on the third floor.
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