News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 17, 2013
Is there a future for economic development in Castine?
The CED, the consultant and the comprehensive plan

by Anne Berleant

With the recent stepping back of Economic Development Consultant Sue Walsh and apparent divisions in the Community and Economic Development committee (see the October 10 issue of the Castine Patriot), the Castine Patriot reviewed town documents detailing their roles and specific municipal charges. We also contacted Walsh and CED Chairman Rick Armstrong to ask how they viewed the future of economic development in Castine.

At the CED’s October 4 meeting, Walsh had cited lack of support from the CED, being asked to perform secretarial tasks such as committee meeting minute taking, and a lack of direction from the CED as reasons behind her decision to cease office hours, while remaining available for specific projects.

“Our interrelations with the consultant have been strained, but that has much more to do with the kind of changes that happen in supervisory kinds of things,” said Armstrong, in a recent phone call.

Walsh, who contracted with the town for services in April 2012, is paid $35 per hour for her services, to include but not be limited to “overall project development, coordination, administration, data collection and meeting attendance.”

According to her contract, she is to provide to the town descriptions of work performed on her invoices; and she reported directly to the selectmen up to and until the CED was formed, when she then worked under supervision of the committee.

Town Manager Dale Abernethy said that it is not unusual for a town consultant to report to a committee, citing zoning consultant Rich Rothe, who reported directly to the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee’s zoning subcommittee before it disbanded last year.

The CED, a seven-member board appointed by selectmen in April, was created “to facilitate community and economic development pursuant to the recommendations of the current Castine Comprehensive Plan and serve as the directors of the Maine Downtown Network local program,” according to town documents.

Its specific charges include:

• becoming “thoroughly familiar” with the comprehensive plan, the economic development strategy proposal prepared by Walsh in 2012 and the Maine Downtown Center’s 2012 report; and

• developing long- and short-term strategies to “achieve the goals and objectives recommended by these documents and develop a process to measure the results of its work.”

In addition, the CED must develop an organizational structure and a mission statement to be approved by the board of selectmen.

When contacted by the Castine Patriot, Abernethy could not find any such documents on file in the town office.

Walsh submitted to the selectmen an economic development proposal and a draft land use table, helped Castine successfully apply to be a Maine Downtown Network Community, and spearheaded projects like Waterfront Wednesdays, Watering Hole Tuesdays and a town-wide survey.

(As a Downtown Network Community, Castine receives guidance, resources and professional training in developing its downtown districts.)

Walsh did not reply to recent, specific questions emailed from the Castine Patriot about the future of economic development in Castine and her role as consultant. “What can I say?” she said, when asked whether she planned to respond.

Economic development and the comprehensive plan

Twenty years ago, there were a couple more realtors, a couple more restaurants, a couple more art galleries, a hairdresser, a hardware store, a research institute, and an insurance agency in downtown Castine.

Ten years ago, except for a new bank office, it looked pretty much the same as it does now, although a few more Main Street businesses closed and their first-floor spaces were turned into residential living units.

In 2006, an eight-member committee, appointed by selectmen, began the process of updating the town’s comprehensive plan, with input from the public who approved the revised plan in 2010.

Since then, selectmen have appointed committees, signed warrant articles on zoning revisions, hired an economic development consultant, and held regular public hearings to address what a majority of residents—as evidenced by the successful adoption of the plan—view as economic development necessary to maintain a thriving Castine.

“One major challenge facing Castine’s economy in the future is developing and keeping a mix of year-round business,” the plan stated. “In recent years there has been no new commercial development….In order to attract businesses, the Town will need to increase the acreage that is available for commercial activity.”

The comprehensive plan specifically recommended supporting existing businesses, developing new businesses that serve residents, tourists and the Maine Maritime Academy community, promoting off-neck commercial growth, and participation in regional efforts to diversify the economy.

In the three years since the plan was adopted—judging by the commercial activity on- and off-neck—not much has changed, despite 18 months of the now-disbanded comprehensive plan implementation committee meetings and several proposed land use changes shot down at town meetings.

As early as an April 2011 selectmen’s meeting, as reported in the April 8 Castine Patriot online edition, citizens questioned whether the plan’s goal for Castine to be a “year-round, thriving community” was realistic.

“Are we a viable year-round community?” asked Ray Nualla at the time.

Preservation versus growth conflict

One thing most everyone seems to agree on is the importance of maintaining the natural beauty of Castine, as voiced by many at a September 23 special town meeting vote on zoning amendments as the reason not to relax land use for commercial business outside the business district.

“There’s a genuine built-in conflict,” said Rick Armstrong, chairman of the Community and Economic Development committee, in trying to bring more visitors, if not year-round residents, into Castine. “This chairman has received a number of phone calls saying that’s absolutely what we don’t want to do.”

Committee members agree on one thing, he said, which is that changes to Castine “must be based on Castine’s present magnificent assets: the rural area, the waterfront…whether in streetscape or zoning. That preservation has to be the basis of where we’re going. That’s really going to be the strength of Castine going forward.

Armstrong foresees the CED creating a zoning “screen” for downtown businesses and “incubators” for research projects, conceivably connected with MMA.

For zoning issues outside downtown, “what are the parameters as zoning goes forward—and I hope it does—to provide the necessary attraction for economic development and protect not individual businesses but the community as a whole?” Armstrong asked. “Mixed use development, cluster development, incubator, small research institutes—all that can be put in there and still preserve what we have.”

Technology, he said, should be used to create an atmosphere attractive for home businesses. “Wireless is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to take advantage of the electronic age.”

Regarding the issue of affordable housing, which is recommended by the comprehensive plan, Armstrong said the focus should be on creating well-paying jobs rather than building affordable housing.

“The issue is getting the pay scales up so people can live here,” he said.