2017-11-03 / Community

Train station options delivered to selectmen

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — When Kennebunk interim economic development director Jim Black rose to update selectmen on the status of a proposed Amtrak train stop in town, one of the first things he said was what he was not going to say.

“I won’t comment on why it is we’re not further along on this project, but it’s been a long time,” he said.

Voters agreed in June 2014 to fund a seasonal stop, using $300,000 taken from local tax increment financing (TIF) district pools to leverage an $800,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation. Sharon Staz, chairman of the town’s energy efficiency committee, said the dream of a train stop in Kennebunk began with lobbying by the group as far back as 2006.

The train stop was originally announced as a 2015 or 2016 project. Then, in November 2015, selectmen voted 6-1 to have then town manager Barry Tibbetts sign the paperwork needed to get the ball rolling to refurbish the old Boston & Maine Railroad Station on Depot Street. The plan then was to have the stop functioning by 2017 or 2018.

The news Black brought with him to the Oct. 24 board meeting was that there are now two options on the table for locating not only a train platform, but what could grow into a “transportation complex.”

“As we start with this project, we want to get people to really think bigger as to what this really represents for the town as movement occurs in how people are commuting and the role of the automobile is changing in the world,” Black said. “We want to give this a sense of place, so that it’s more than just a place to catch a train.”

Black said the town’s economic development committee has toured the two sites, one of which has a lower up-front cost, but could lead to larger costs down the road if expansion becomes viable. The other, meanwhile, offers greater potential for growth. Both sites have similar engineering costs, although he declined to identify either potential location.

Given that the Maine Tourism Bureau projects a 6 percent growth year-over-year in tourists, Black said he envisions that passenger volume flowing through the Kennebunk station could grow during its first decade from the 2,500 per month now seen in Old Orchard Beach, to levels experienced in Wells, which sees an average of 3,000 riders per month year-round, peaking to 8,000 per month in the summer months.

Black presented a phased projection of 2,000 passengers per month in years 1-3 of the new station, growing to 4,000 in years 4-7 and 6,000 in years 8-10, with a corresponding need for parking spaces of 30, 60 and 90 at each phase, with additional resources for trolley buses, taxis and rental cars.

Black said that would beam a need for a 250-to-400 square foot building during the first three years of operation, with Americans with Disabilities Act compliant bathrooms and seating for 24.

Phase II would expand the building by between 200 and 400 square feet, he said, adding food vendor options, more seating and a “quiet space.”

Finally, Phase III would add 500 square feet, along with more formal meal options, a play area and a pocket park, along with rental facilities for bikes and scooters.

“The idea is to mitigate the risk by thinking big, but starting small,” he said.

However, some selectmen questioned the proposal, largely out of fear that changing trains mid ride might jeopardize the plan already on the table. The town has a 2019 use-it-or-lose-it deadline for the MDOT grant.

“A transportation center idea has never been discussed before tonight,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said. “We’ve always looked at a seasonal train stop and now we are talking about something on a grander scale.”

“Obviously, it would be very easy to go forward with the seasonal platform,” Black said. “My concern is that I don’t want to be shortsighted and lose the service this could grow into.”

Choosing one site poses some roadblocks to future expansion, he said, because of the number of property owners that would have to be involved, agreeing to either sell or lease land to the town.

“More players means more uncertainty, higher costs and a lower overall score,” Black said, adding that at no point in the past had the town down a good job at projecting ongoing operational and maintenance costs, even for a seasonal platform.

“I’d like to see some kind of connection between the number of people you are projecting arriving and where they are going to stay and eat, because I don’t quite see the daytrippers,” said budget board member John Costin.

Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that there are 16 places to stay within an easy jaunt from ether proposed location.

“I think there are bigger numbers here than people realize in terms of the number of beds available [near downtown],” she said.

Black meanwhile, predicted that while a Kennebunk train stop has often been viewed as a boon to Lower Village, as more people flow through the downtown area, “market force” may prompt “between three and five service-based businesses” on Main Street storefronts to give way way to restaurants, pubs and other shops geared more toward tourist activities.

“It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come environment,” Black said. “I think If we start with a seasonal environment it will give us a test path that will mitigate our risk. The [potential station] sites should be evaluated in a way that will not put us in a box if we are tremendously successful.”

“I’m concerned that we not overpromising and under-delivering to those visitors,” Costin said.

Selectman Ed Karytko said he feared there may never be enough train station activity to support the activity Black envisioned.

“When that train stops in Old Orchard Beach, they’re one block away from what’s happening,” he said. “They’re basically one block away from Disneyworld. Not so in Kennebunk. Coming here, you almost need a car to get around. My only fear is what you mentioned, ‘build-it-and-they-will-come,’ because that happens so often in this town. And when Perfecto’s leaves the town because there’s not enough business, you have to step back and say, wait a minute, they didn’t come.”

Board chairman Dick Morin also questioned the ongoing costs of a transportation complex, even though Black said he was trying to do a better job of factoring that into what had been done previously.

“One of the things we’ve done repeatedly in this town, is that we are good at making a splash, but then we ignore the ancillary services to support that splash. The Waterhouse Center is a great location, but there are costs and we have yet to identify what those costs are, truly,” Morin said.

Selectman William Ward said there really is no way to plan for how the market will react to a train station and visa versa.

“It’s going to evolve over time and there will be bottlenecks along the way,” he said.

Black suggested the next step may be for selectmen to meet in private with owners of the properties. Town Manager Mike Pardue said the board should expect to hear more “in the next couple of weeks” as plans develop further.

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

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