“I think we’re gaining some momentum,” Sue Walsh said, one year after tackling economic development as a part-time consultant for the town. “Economic development can be a very long-term process.”
Continued funding for Walsh’s position will be voted on at town meeting in June. In the meantime, she and the Community and Economic Development Committee have taken many steps in that process, including working with local merchants and Maine Maritime Academy staff to bring academy students, visitors and conference attendees into downtown businesses, helping Castine be named a Maine Downtown Network community and creating a Facebook page and a new town website (currently under development).
“There’s no magic wand,” Walsh said.
While proposed zoning changes to spur the business climate and affordable housing garnered mixed results—currently a new subdivision ordinance passed in November contradicts the zoning ordinance after its proposed replacement failed at the polls—Walsh has specific plans to help “tip the scales in favor of Castine.”
One is Village Ventures, being developed to provide incentives to encourage new businesses to move into vacant commercial properties. The incentives are not yet set, but they could include a month of free rent and other ways “to provide a little help,” Walsh said. And the town would have “a little more control” over what new businesses come, to ensure ones chosen can succeed, based on their business plans.
Yet Walsh also pointed out that Castine’s commercial downtown retail area is very small and currently is full.
“Castine is very restrictive in the type of commercial activities it allows, and [allows them] in a small area,” Walsh said.
As selectmen work to create a new, “baseline” zoning ordinance for town meeting vote in June—using the recommendations of legal counsel to align it with state requirements, and easing some application procedures—with controversial changes such as land use to be addressed later, Walsh said that land use changes should be specific.
“We need to think about what types of businesses we do want and put them on the table,” she said, rather than broad categories that include wording like “other commercial activities,” used in drafts of the failed ordinance.
“There were a lot of scary things being thrown out,” she said of last year’s public hearings on proposed land use changes. In particular, Walsh pointed to the fear raised at the idea of permitting inns and hotels off neck.
“What can survive here?” she said. “It’s not going to be a Super 8; it’s an eight-room boutique [hotel].”
In speaking with residents about the history of Castine zoning, Walsh found that in the 1970s, when zoning was less restrictive, changes were made “to stop one person.”
“[Castine] threw the baby out with the bathwater,” she said, by restricting opportunities for everyone else.
An affordable housing venture?
Walsh also described a new charitable organization, called Castine Community Partners, created to raise funds for affordable housing projects and economic development.
Already an opportunity exists to “acquire a piece of land for one-family housing [that is] not cluster housing,” she said, while declining to go into details, outside of stating that the land belongs to a Castine resident.
The group is also looking into “Locavesting,” Walsh said, a trend in well-off communities with a struggling business community, where “people of means commit a portion of their portfolio to investment in local businesses.”
The CCP board has five members—Jack Macdonald, Lynne Parsons, Liz Parish, Lee Wylie and Walsh—and is looking for one or two more.
Looking back at her year in Castine, Walsh said she’s “been surprised at the number of people, and sometimes the type of people, who have an idea. Some really great ideas came from surprising places.”