2017-06-02 / Front Page

Board disbands downtown committee

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Citing declining activity, an inability to recruit people to fill vacant seats, and a general lack of interest from Main Street businesses, Kennebunk selectmen voted 5-2 at their May 23 meeting to disband the downtown committee.

“It sort of fell apart under my watch,” said Selectman Blake Baldwin, the board liaison to the committee. “But I think it was already in that condition prior to my joining the board.”

Baldwin said none of the 14 businesses in the heart the town’s historic Main Street are represented on the committee, which serves to promote that area of town. Meanwhile, Baldwin said, two other groups, the economic development committee and the festival committee, duplicated much of the downtown groups charge, just over a wider swath of town.

“To devote a tremendous amount time and energy to what is literally 800 linear feet of roadway, I just don’t think that make sense,” Baldwin said.

Selectmen agreed, reassigning the downtown committee’s signature event, the annual holiday tree lighting, to the festival committee.

But not everyone was in love with the idea, in part because Kennebunk has around 35 volunteer committees, many of which have more than the three vacancies officially listed on the downtown committee — which may be more, given Town Manager’s Michael Pardue’s assertion that “there’s nobody left” to speak to the board about its issues.

“I would be very disappointed to see the board take this action,” said resident Sharon Staz, who chairs the town’s energy efficiency advisory committee, and said some committees have not held a meeting “for years, never mind a few months” the downtown group has gone without being able to muster a quorum.

“At one time this was a very vibrant committee,” Staz said of the downtown committee. “It had representation from the north and south [of Route 1] as well as the downtown and did a lot of wonderful things. Voting to disband it sends a message that I’m not sure lid like to see you send.”

Staz said for more than two years selectmen have bandied about the idea of overhauling all municipal committees, to reinvigorate and repurpose those that need a charge, and eliminate those that are no longer needed, or are not serving a purpose. But to single out the downtown committee potentially sends a message that Main Street is not as important as other areas of town, she said.

“It’s fallen apart completely in the last year, year and a half,” Staz said. “We can debate why that happened, but it’s a fact. But we send the message that we don’t need this one committee, when what we may need is a new direction and a different purpose. I think you need to have a workshop.”

But Baldwin said selectmen have workshopped the issue of inactive and directionless committee before, “at least three times,” without definitive action. The work of better managing Kennebunk’s volunteer committees has to finally start someplace, he said.

“When you prune a tree you have got to start with one branch,” he said.

Selectmen Shiloh Schulte and Deborah Beal voted against the dissolution. Beal said it was not clear to her if there is genuinely no interest in the downtown committee, or if those who might want to serve simply don’t know that such a thing exists.

Schulte, meanwhile, said selectmen should take a look at the health of the entire tree before they start lopping off branches.

“We should have a plan for what we are going to do and if the workshops are not creating a plan, then maybe either we sit down ourselves or have staff make suggestions,” he said. “There needs to be something in the larger context. It’s always like, yeah, we should do something, but then we don’t. Yes, this is doing something, but it seems like addressing a situation as it comes up rather than having a comprehensive strategy.”

“I think we are dealing with a horse of a different color,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “The things this committee did are still happening, they’re just happening in a different way.”

One person not in attendance at the May 23 meeting was Ahmed Cianglulli. He had been chairman of the towndown committee until resigning his post earlier this year. Far from being what Baldwin called “moribund” the group had been serving it’s stated purpose to great effect, he said.

“Every event we held for the last two years has had the highest participation rate in years, from coffee with the chief, to the tree lighting and the music at the plaza, where bands would perform on Saturday during the summer,” he said. “Even attendance during our monthly Thursday meetings were up.

“The committee was more involved,” Cianglulli said, painting a different picture than the one presented by Baldwin. “The businesses the committee represented within the geographical domain became more involved discussion wise with the committee concerning what was important to the businesses.

“And, before the town website was overhauled, the downtown committee page expanded vastly and included all sorts of information on the events we were having. It included pictures, fliers and videos of when the bands were playing during the summer.”

Cianglulli, who remains chairman of the Healthy Kennebunk program, declined to say why he walked off the downtown committee, if it was doing so well, allowing only that, “My resignation is an involved, long story.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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