2017-12-08 / Front Page

Train station derailed

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — In a vote interim Economic Development Director Jim Black described as “driving a stake through the heart of train activity,” Kennebunk selectmen this past week opted to pull the plug on a long-anticipated Amtrak platform in town.

In a 4-3 decision at the their Nov. 29 meeting, only three selectmen — Dan Boothby, Shiloh Schulte and William Ward — voted to back the request of Bob Georgitis, chairman of the town’s economic development committee, that the board create of a five-person ad hoc group to work with his committee, as well as the nonprofit Kennebunk Economic Development Corporation, to broker a deal with relevant property owners to create a train station site capable of scaling up, if warranted, to meet demand.

“The economic development commit- tee is the visible, public side of development efforts in town, and the development corporation is the behind the-scenes private side,” said Georgitis, who sits on both groups. “As we started getting into the weeds with talking to the business owners of these properties, there’s a fine line of what the town can do without getting into trouble with the government entities we are dealing with. There’s certain things we should and can do, and certain things we can’t do on the public side.”

In 2014 Kennebunk voters authorized borrowing $300,000 as a local match toward an $800,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to help expand rail service by establishing a seasonal train stop in town. That state money goes away if the trains are not running on time, so to speak, by December 2019.

Putting the development corporation at the forefront of deciding just how to spend those funds, Georgitis said, would “allow vetting of information behind the scenes, keeping it confidential, to work with business owners and property owners to flesh out the details of a development deal and then come back in public forum.”

Georgitis said the final solution would likely involve one of up to three potential sites, and require consolidation of areas now in industrial, residential, and historic zones into a new zoning district designed to enable transportation-related development. Also in play would be the creation of a new tax increment financing district (TIF) to help drive and finance that construction. Public votes on the creation of the new zone and the TIF district could come as early as June, Georgitis said, but more likely next November.

Selectmen Blake Baldwin, Chris Cluff and Ed Karytko, as well as board chairman Dick Morin, voted against creating the new go-between committee.

For most of them, the issue was not creation of a public committee to privately vet closed-door negotiations between the development corporation and property owners before making a final recommendation. The issue was concern that the train stop, wherever a station might go, had grown far beyond the original vision. Rather than a one-time investment in a sort of self-service platform, it was promising to become a full-blown “transportation hub,” likely translating into an ongoing drain on town resources and local tax dollars.

“This is quintessential project creep, no doubt about it,” Baldwin said. “This stared as a very simple idea and now it’s getting grander and grander.”

“I believe with absolute certainty that this is nothing more than a Christmas puppy,” Morin agreed. “It’s going to be warm and fuzzy when we first get it and then we start taking it for walks, and we have to feed it, and we are going to be non-stop caring for this.

“And yet, there has not been one discussion from the inception of this whole concept on the cost of operation,” he said.

Morin also suggested the primary beneficiary of a Kennebunk train stop would be the twin tourist meccas of Lower Village and Dock Square. That invited a sharing of the costs, as well as dividends, he said.

“I see this as a great opportunity for Kennebunkport, yet I don’t see anyone [from there] sitting here in the room with us,” Morin said.

Town Manager Mike Pardue said he has spoken with his counterpart from the Port, Laurie Smith, and was told selectmen there would likely be amenable to having a conversation about splitting the price tag to develop a train station.

Regardless of how many pockets might get dipped into, Karytko remained loath to spend Kennebunk dollars speculatively, just on the assumption that creating a train station would fuel an economic boom.

“I’m trying to figure out why we need the train station,” he said. “How many people are going to use it? It this another build-it-and-they-will-come exercise? We rebuilt the downtown. We built the Waterhouse Center. And now Perfecto’s is gone. We already don’t have enough money to do the things we need to do. Why do we need to spend money and time and effort to do something like this?”

Although Karytko claimed it is cheaper and quicker to drive to Wells from Kennebunk than it would be to take the train there, Georgitis deemed it likely the train would be used by daily commuters as readily as tourists — although that opened the door for Karytko, Morin and even Pardue, to chime in with questions about what Wells spends to maintain its train station.

However, Ward likened a potential train station to the decades-long expansion of the Portland Jetport. From something small and nondescript, the station might grow to become the transportation center envisioned, but that would be determined by market forces, he said. Georgitis agreed, saying the key consideration is to reach a deal with the interested property owners to ensure that whatever deal is put together now leaves room for the site to grow, if needed.

“We can play the games and we can do the research, but we won’t know [the need] until we actually build it,” Georgitis said. “Unless you want to spend money on consultants to try and answer those kinds of questions, we don’t have the volunteers and time to try and research it and come back with the answers. So, do we spend $50,000 to be told this is going to be a flop, or do we go with our best-guess approach?”

“That’s my point,” Karytko shot back. “If you ask me to vote right now, I’m, ‘No,’ because I am sick and tired of build-it-and-they-will-come and then they don’t come. And then who gets stuck with the bill? Me, the taxpayer. And all the other people out there who are taxpayers. I’m not going to do that anymore. Not on this board.”

“If we don’t have staff to vet the project, I’d like to know where we are going to get the staff to fill a 16- hour day of train stops?” Morin said.

Baldwin acknowledged being co-chairman with Georgitis of the economic development committee when the seasonal platform idea was first proffered. “I had my picture taken and put in the [daily] paper, standing in front of the old station looking like I owned the place,” he recalled, with some apparent discomfort.

Baldwin apologized to Georgitis for “taking a left hand turn” on the train station concept since then, but said too much had changed over the past three years. Georgitis himself acknowledged that a property initially eyeballed for station parking has since changed hands, “and is now on the market for $500,000,” putting it beyond the project budget. But Baldwin add- ed MDOT had thrown up unspecified roadblocks as well. More importantly, he said, the town now has a multi-million-dollar school renovation bond on the books, a similarly-sized sewer project waiting in the wings, and road maintenance needs that continually outpace the selectboard’s collective stomach to foot the bill.

“We need to decide, what are the things that we need to do that are critically important to the ongoing business of this town, and what are the things we would like to do,” Baldwin said. “There might be a better use of a quarter million dollars than throwing it down the train hole.”

Pardue, meanwhile, appeared to cast some shade on the idea of a committee created by selectmen to work almost exclusively in executive session. Already, he said, there are questions about just how the parking lot had been lost, prior to his tenure in town hall.

“You’ve mentioned the parking that was going to be available across the street [from the old train station],” Pardue said. “I had great concerns with that, quite honestly, because I felt as though there was a clandestine back-room discussion that I became privy to learning about. That wasn’t a missed opportunity in my opinion, that was an opportunity that was veiled in a way that I would have had great concerns from a standpoint of ethical positioning, and whether that was appropriate or not.

“But that’s off the table now,” Pardue said. “Now I think we have to be transparent. We have to let people know what the ongoing costs might be. Sitting in the town manager’s seat, those are really great concerns for me.”

Morin, meanwhile, was clearly gun shy about buying a bill of goods on maintenance costs and winding up with a local jewel too big to fail.

“We have a project down the street that we’ve yet to figure out what it costs us on an annual basis,” Morin said, referring to the Waterhouse Center. “I don’t want to put another one on the town that we can’t figure out what the costs of operation are.

“I believe with all my heart and soul, that if we had $300,000 to spend, I’d [rather] give you 10 years of $30,000 shuttle rides to Wells and see if anything comes out of that,” Morin said.

Black closed out discussion by saying he was “offended” by the accusation that the train station was morphing into more elaborate than the public had authorized.

“We’ve always said it’s going to be a seasonal stop and we have more than enough money between the DOT and TIF funds to do that,” he said. “The option that we had been exploring was to simply make sure we were not inside of a box that would forever limit us from not going into something more established that could support business envelopment in a way that we thought it could for both the downtown and Lower Village.”

After selectmen voted down creation of the review committee, both Georgitis and Black encouraged selectmen to cast a second vote making clear they now do not intend to pursue a train station in any form.

“This is a premature termination,” Black said. “I think there was not a sufficient level of fact-finding for the board to make that decision. But you made that decision, and I would be happy to have the board recommend to the public at this point that they are not moving forward with the train, and I will reset my priorities tomorrow morning. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one less item on my list of things I’ve got to work on.

“I would only ask that you try very hard to formally suggest to the public and myself that we are now terminating the deal with the train,” Black said. “I have many, many other things to work on, but I think that’s essentially what you have done.”

Selectmen mulled that clarifying vote, but were not able to reach a consensus on wording, finally deciding the vote they took was a sufficient signal to residents.

With a train station now apparently dead in the water, the question becomes, what happens to the money already appropriated to the project.

According to town Finance Director Joel Downs, the $300,000 was bonded in February 2016, with about $56,000 of it spent to date on associated engineering and surveying prep work. If the rest is not spent developing a train station, the money would have to sit in town coffers to make annual debt payments, as the bonds are not recallable for payoff until 2026. However, voters could agree to direct the money to some other purpose. Because the train station bond yielded a 2.1 percent interest rate, it may be worth doing just that, Downs said.

Selectmen asked Pardue to identify the best course going forward.

“It will appear back on the agenda and have guidance from the town attorney so the board can consider all options,” Pardue said.

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

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