March 11, 2010

Group seeks downtown renewal funds

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA—A group led by GrowSmart Maine on Monday advocated for a $27 million bond package to invest in the state's downtowns and to help redevelop of historic properties.

GrowSmart, an anti-sprawl advocacy group, presented the proposal at a State House press conference, touting it as a way to stimulate the economy and retain Maine's character. The proposal would address some of the suggestions in a comprehensive 2006 report by the Brookings Institution, which explored ways to preserve Maine's character, improve the economy and streamline government.

''This proposal is using our history and past to build the economic future we need in Maine,'' said Maggie Drummond, advocacy director for GrowSmart.

The proposal centers on the ''Communities for Maine's Future'' bill, filed by Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, and Rep. Margaret Rotundo, D-Lewiston. The bill would change the name and expand the focus of the Municipal Investment Trust Fund, run by the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Rather than just providing grants to service center communities, it would be open to all Maine communities. Grants from what would be called Communities for Maine's Future Program would help reverse sprawl, proponents said, and would also spur economic development by increasing tourism and attracting businesses to downtowns.

''Maine is a special place, and our downtowns are a major reason for that,'' said Rotundo.

The bill would establish a review panel to look over downtown projects and parcel out grants from $25 million of the proposed bond. The remaining $2 million would establish a revolving fund that the state's Historic Preservation Committee could use to grant money to nonprofits to buy historic buildings and then sell them to developers for renovation. Returns from the investment would be put back into the fund.

This bond proposal is one of many submitted by legislators and Gov. John Baldacci, all of which will be discussed and debated as the state decides what sort of overall bond package to pass. The bond proposals would have to be voted on by the public, as well.

If the Communities for Maine's Future program were created, a review panel would go over downtown grant proposals and rank them on their potential economic stimulus effects, said Drummond. They could span a range of projects, from building façade work to improved pedestrian routes to even mill redevelopment.

Working on projects in a downtown setting can be challenging, said Drummond, and providing some public funds has been shown to spur private investment. The program would encourage communities to work with private groups in partnership, and would require a one-to-one match for any state funding dollars.

''We are looking for where we can get the most return for our investment,'' said Mitchell, who called the proposal a ''stimulus for Main Street.''

The bill has both Republican and Democratic sponsors. Rep. H. Sawin Millett Jr., R-Waterford, said he thought the bill would work well to reverse policies that encouraged sprawl over the past decade and have ''taken away the spirit'' of downtowns.

''We don't know yet what our capacity is for bonding, but I think this is an appropriate place to start,'' said Millett.

The Municipal Investment Trust Fund has been under- capitalized in the past, said Drummond. Over 13 years, it has made 28 grants to projects in service center communities, of which there are about 65 in Maine. Drummond said the largest bond funding the fund has received was $10 million, and that last year the fund received $1.5 million.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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