Ellsworth creates independent nonprofit to support business development

Posted May 21, 2013, at 2:43 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The City Council will spin off an independent, nonprofit corporation aimed at drumming up business development within city limits.

Membership of the group’s initial board of directors is yet to be determined, but councilors on Monday approved a concept plan and bylaws for the Ellsworth Business Development Corp.

The benefit of having a separate entity for business development are myriad, said City Manager Michelle Beal. The EBDC will have broad authority to negotiate with businesses, represent the city in development activity and create incentives for businesses to open in Ellsworth.

They also will be able to keep business information secret, something the city, as a public entity, is unable to do.

“There’s an element of confidentiality needed when you’re working with a company to try to bring them in, which you can’t have with a city council,” Beal said Tuesday. “It’s about competition, financials. It’s not a public record for them, nor do they want it to be.”

“These have been very successful in the state of Maine,” said Gary Fortier, chairman of the City Council, on Tuesday. “It gives economic development a little more structure and gets rid of some of the politics.”

EBDC will be modeled after similar, successful groups in other Maine cities, such as Bangor, Augusta and Lewiston-Auburn, Beal said. And while the city is giving the corporation a wide berth, it’s not washing its hands of oversight completely. City officials are pitching the idea as a partnership.

The new organization’s board of directors will be joined by the city manager and a city councilor, who will have input, but no vote. The city’s economic development director, Micki Sumpter, will serve as the group’s secretary for at least its first year.

And Ellsworth’s planning board and City Council will still be involved in permitting and negotiations with prospective business developers.

“Things will still be brought to the City Council,” Beal said. “If they’re requesting tax breaks, that would still have to go to the council. It’s just about going out, focusing on businesses and being able to have discussions before we get to the point it should be public.”

Beal said she doesn’t expect the city to spend tax dollars on the independent EBDC, but Fortier said Ellsworth would likely donate two vacant business park lots to EBDC, which it will market and sell as a form of early income.

“That money will probably be allowed to stay in the development corporation to fund future projects,” he said. Two other business park lots recently sold for between $10,000 and $25,000, he said.

Fortier said the expertise of EBDC members will be the group’s greatest strength. A list of prospective board members provided to the council on Monday is a who’s who of Ellsworth and Hancock County businesses. The list included names such as Charlie Therrien, CEO of Maine Coast Memorial Hospital; Charles Hewett, vice president of The Jackson Laboratory; Jay Darling of Darling’s Auto; James Marcos of Maine Shellfish; and many other professionals in business, real estate, development and philanthropy.

While the bylaws for EBDC were approved unanimously by councilors on Monday evening, there was still some hesitation about how to ensure that a new group, completely independent of City Council, will act with Ellsworth’s best interests in mind.

“Once this is created and kicked out the door, its a living dragon looking back at us,” said Councilor John Philips. “I’m not saying that in a bad sense. It’s good to keep politics out of [development]. But once the baby is born, I hope it’s a healthy child.”

Councilor Stephen Beathem also was concerned about the length of EBDC’s leash, though he ultimately voted in favor of the group, in concept. Because the group will be able to change it’s own bylaws, he wondered how much control the city really has in creating it.

“It’s an entity unto itself and can do whatever it wants,” he said. “So how do we shoot it?”

Councilor Bob Crosthwaite said it would be nearly impossible for the corporation to actively work against the city. It would need to meet the letter of the law in all its dealings, he said, and will work closely with the city.

“If we’re going to see development, this is just a tool, an engine that can be used,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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