Gorham’s growth and its impact on schools and town services are the major issues facing the two incumbents and two former councilors running for two, three-year terms on the Town Council, they say.

Chairperson Lee Pratt and Councilor Virginia Wilder Cross face current School Committee member and former Council Chairperson Philip Gagnon Jr. and former Councilor Paul Smith on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Gorham’s estimated population rose to 17,978 in 2019, up from 16,368 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, representing a 9.84% increase. The growth is burdening Gorham’s overcrowded and aging schools, and a town-wide study is examining all town facilities in an effort to best move forward financially.

The council candidates weighed in with their perspectives.

Gagnon

Gagnon said Gorham is at a “crossroads with residential growth,” which is straining the town’s capacity at the municipal and school levels.

“The need for leadership and thoughtful direction for our capital needs will require someone with my experience and desire for accountability,” Gagnon said. “I championed the creation of the Facilities Committee while on the School Board, advocated for joint collaboration with the Town Council, and await the facilities study presentation this fall.”

Gagnon said the challenge for any community is maintaining its unique character while meeting the needs of an ever-growing town. The town needs to continue focusing on attracting business to diversify the tax base, he said.

As a former town councilor and chairperson, Gagnon said, he worked to expand conservation and trail efforts and improve Little Falls fields and the community center, all while minimizing the property tax impact.

“I continue to believe a tax, no matter how noble its original intent, is still a burden on its citizens, Gagnon said.

Pratt

Pratt said the biggest issue that impacts the town is the ratio of residential growth to business growth.

“We need to make it known Gorham is open and working for our businesses. I have diligently worked with businesses, holding meetings during the pandemic, sponsoring items to assist with increased funding options and bringing the economic director from part time to full time,” Pratt said.

Residential growth can also be managed, he said, by “incentivizing the growth” with the least impact on the school system, such as age 55-plus housing and multi-use buildings.

Pratt advocates reviewing zoning and ordinances with an eye to creating a simpler process for businesses to  establish and operate in town.  It will be his “next big focus,” if reelected, he said.

Smith

Because residential growth has led to increased school enrollment and costs, “the school budget is taking off,” Smith said.

The cost of education is $14,000 or more per student.

“It’s hard to make up for that,” Smith said.

Residential growth also represents a big cost in taxes for longtime residents, Smith said, but it’s not fair to simply stop allowing more housing to be built.

“It’s a delicate process to work with town staff to find what we can legally do,” he said.

He advocates working with surrounding communities that are also growing.

As a former councilor, Smith supported purchasing the Mark Rines property on Main Street to expand the industrial park.

“It’s a perfect place for that,” Smith said.  “We have to be ready to accept new business.”

Wilder Cross

Wilder Cross said Gorham is a “wonderful place” to live, raise a family and retire.

“Unfortunately, for too many it’s not affordable,” she said, and that’s what she says is the top issue facing the town.

It raises two issues she’s been working on for the past three years.

“First, we need to create more housing options. Not everyone wants or can afford a four-bedroom house on four acres of land, so we need to continue our work to amend land use laws to allow for other options, such as denser walkable village areas,” she said.

“Second, we need to cover education and infrastructure costs by supporting small business and industrial expansion.”

Wilder Cross said she is excited about new businesses coming to village areas and with efforts to expand industry in town.

“When we balance residential and business growth, Gorham will be a wonderful and affordable place,” she said.

The town will then attract young professionals and diverse families and also have the “wisdom and experience seniors bring to the mix,” she said.

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