2018-03-16 / Front Page

Train station plans taking shape

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Principals at a March 7 meeting of Kennebunk’s economic development committee, called to unveil plans for a proposed Amtrak stop, included, from left, Stephen Sawyer of South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, who drew up a concept plan for the property, David Gould, owner of the 3-acre grain station site on Plummer Lane where the station and associated parking lot would go, and committee chairman Bob Georgitis, who also sits on the ad hoc group that selected the site from among six possibilities. (Duke Harrington photo) Principals at a March 7 meeting of Kennebunk’s economic development committee, called to unveil plans for a proposed Amtrak stop, included, from left, Stephen Sawyer of South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, who drew up a concept plan for the property, David Gould, owner of the 3-acre grain station site on Plummer Lane where the station and associated parking lot would go, and committee chairman Bob Georgitis, who also sits on the ad hoc group that selected the site from among six possibilities. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — The finalist in site selection for a seasonal train stop in Kennebunk has been unveiled, but for about 25 people who gathered at town hall March 7 to hear the announcement — including five of seven selectman — the concern is less where the concept is going than how it has got to where it is now, and how, in some eyes, it went off the rails.

The possibility of a local stop for the Amtrak Downeaster was first authorized in June 2014, when voters approved a bond package that included $300,000 as a local match meant to leverage an $800,000 federal grant, funneled to the town through the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT).

The project slipped onto the back burner, not gaining any true momentum until last fall when the town’s economic development committee toured six potential platform sites along the rail line through town. The drive to set the development in motion took on new urgency earlier this year, when the town learned MDOT will pull back the grant money if the platform is not ready to process passengers by December 2019.

At the March 7 meeting, Town Manage Mike Pardue revealed the deadline is even closer than that. On Feb. 27, Kennebunk received a letter from MDOT and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), giving a July 1 deadline to demonstrate some progress on moving forward with a plan.

One possibility taken off the table in that letter, Pardue said, is passing on a train station in Kennebunk and rebranding the Wells station as a stop for both towns. MDOT is not saying no to that idea, Pardue said, just no to doing so with its money.

Project history

Back in 2014, the plan had been to build the platform at the town’s original train depot, now owned by Tim Dietz. Where and when that went off the rails has been a point of contention for some selectmen, most notably Ed Karytko and Dick Morin.

That concern came to light in October, when interim Economic Development Director Jim Black presented selectmen with a long-term concept to scale-up the train station into a regional multimodal transportation complex, should demand warrant. In November, the board voted 4-3 against a proposal pitched by economic development committee Bob Georgitis, who asked them to form a special ad hoc committee to vet three finalist sites and launch negotiations with a preferred landowner. At the time, board Morin said the vote effectively killed the entire deal dead in its tracks, which was fine with he and Karytko, who questioned the long-term hit to taxpayers if the once simple platform did indeed become a public transit hub.

But then in December to board made a 180-degree turn, voting 6-1 to reverse course by appointing Georgitis, Black, and Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder, to begin the process of site selection, tasking the trio with formulating an estimate of how much it should cost to build, operate, and maintain, a seasonal platform over the long haul.

The initial report of that group led to occasionally heated debate at the Feb. 13 selectboard meeting, ending in a 5-2 vote to have the ad hoc group — now to be augmented by the entire economic development committee — explore specific plans and costs associated with what had, by then, emerged as the front-running candidate, the historic “grainery” property on Plummer Lane, just off Summer Street, owned since 2008 by David Gould.

The March 7 meeting of the economic development committee did not include any hard numbers on construction or maintenance of the platform. Georgitis said it was too soon for that, as the session constituted the first public meeting with Gould and potential contracts had not yet been broached.

However, a concept plan for the site, prepared by South Portland engineering firm Sebago Technics, did give an idea for what the new station might look like. In place of a garage now on site, a 28-space parking lot would be constructed, to include a two-way access point for passenger cars and a dedicated entryway for a trolley bus. No public restrooms would be provided, at least at first, with a ticket kiosk the only amenity. From the kiosk, a ramp would lead down to an 80-foot-long covered platform beside the rail line.

Still, selectmen had questions, many of which were fueled by the long delay in the project since the 2014 funding vote.

“This town runs on two things,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said. “It runs on Dunkin’ and it runs on rumor.” In hopes of dispelling some of the speculation currently in circulation — such as the popular belief that NNEPRA would demand the town commit to maintaining the train stop for a period of at least 20 years — Baldwin presented Georgitis with a list of 20 questions, drafted earlier that day by the selectboard’s finance subcommittee.

Most of those questions were not answered at the March 7 meeting. Georgitis was scheduled to make a formal presentation to selectmen at their March 13 meeting. That session, delayed to March 14 by Tuesday’s nor’easter snow storm, took place after this week’s print edition of the Post went to press.

Instead, the meeting functioned primarily as a meet ‘n’ greet with Gould, with a first public unveiling of Sebego Technics concept, preparatory to a committee green light to take the concept to selectmen.

Grainery site lauded

For most on the committee, the concept of building a train stop on the grainery property cannot get a go-ahead from selectmen fast enough.

“The (grainery) building just oozes charm,” committee member Rachel Phipps. “There’s is so much potential down the road. It would be so, so cute to have a bike shop for rentals and a coffee shop, or whatever.”

But as selectmen in the audience continued to hedge, Phipps’ continued. “Let’s move forward, I don’t understand why there’s so much consternation with what’s happened in the past,” she said. “Let’s do it. Let’s go. Let’s make it happen. Let’s get this process moving.”

But Baldwin said he and his peers worry about committing to a plan by the July 1 deadline without all the details of that plan squared away and ironed out.

“We don’t know whether we can get (the property) rezoned,” Blake replied. “We don’t know what the HPC (Historic Preservation Commission) is going to do. We don’t know whether we get a lease that’s going to be satisfactory to Pan Am (Railways) and the agencies involved. There is a whole list of things that we don’t know as we sit here today.”

“We have not had a clear line of direction from the board of selectmen,” said committee vice chairman Heather Harris. “We’ve been to selectmen two or three times now and the lines keep changing on the answers that you want. We came back with numbers before and you basically said we don’t believe those numbers, they’re not good enough.”

Referring to the list of questions presented by Blake, Harris said, “If this is the set of questions that you want us to answer, I think we can do that, but I don’t think it’s fair to keep saying, ‘Oh, wait, we have more questions.’”

For his part, Gould described the grainery building as “a hobby.” He purchased the site, which lies partly within Kennebunk’s historic district, from Kenoco Inc., which had owned it since 1976, for $172,500.

Technically, the building belongs to Footwear Specialties Inc., and is listed in town assessment records as Grain Station Inc. at Gould’s Rivers Edge Drive home address. Gould and his wife Anne founded their footwear company in 1991, licensing STABILicer traction cleats, designed to fit over shoes and boots, from its Canadian inventor for manufacture in the United States. Located in Biddeford, STABIL, also known as 32north, employs 20 and boasts three production centers in Maine, plus one in Ontario.

“This (grainery) building is a hobby for me. I bought it just because I thought it was cool,” Gould said. “I decided I’d have to figure out what to do with it after I bought it.”

The original grain mill was built around 1890. Part of the building may be older than that, given evidence that the rafters, at least, were recycled from a previous structure.

“We re-sided the building last spring and it’s just as straight as an arrow,” Gould said. “We didn’t have to change a thing. The building hasn’t shifted an inch in all these years. It’s a pretty cool facility.”

At some point, use of the building shifted from processing grain to distributing coal and fuel oil. The building still has the original chutes and conveyors once used to transfer grain back and forth from cars on the old Boston & Maine Railroad line, Gould said, as well as the printing presses that branded the bags product was sold in.

Since he bought the grainery in 2008, Gould has turned it into a business incubator of sorts. Today, it houses offices and storage for seven small businesses, mainely local contractors.

However, in a sign of just how far negotiations need to go before selectmen will feel comfortable confirming to MDOT they are committed to the project and release of the local matching funds, Gould noted that a secondary garage on the property houses four additional businesses. The Sebego concept plan shows that structure taken down to make way for train station parking.

“That does generate revenue for me,” Gould said.

Before he started landlording contractors, Gould said, he first broached the idea of turning the grainery building into a train station.

“I think a passenger rail terminal in this town is really, really important to the town’s future,” he said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. I really believe it. It would be as if (Interstate) 95 never built an exit in Kennebunk and instead stopped in Arundel. Both towns would have developed very differently.”

However, Pan Am resisted Gould’s initial overtures, he said, voicing a preference instead for a site on the opposite side of the tracks, even though no such plans were in play at the time. But a project later seemed to come into focus when the town’s original train depot, owned by Dietz, emerged as the presumptive location for any future rail development. By last year, Gould had moved on, he said, and was developing a plan to turn the balance of the grainery lot into a subdivision for workforce housing. A plan he had drawn up and passed around at the March 7 meeting showed as many as five homes on the property.

The Dietz site later fell out of favor, in part because of an inability to fit in additional parking, should demand warrant it, or for buses, trolleys, taxis and other modes that might make it a fitting multi-modal transportation hub — again, if demand should warrant.

According to Georgitis, Dietz also wanted the town to install public restrooms within the old train station, given that many tourists tend to knock on the door, thinking it has such facilities anyway.

But for now, meeting attendees agreed, there are no roadblocks to continued negotiations and planning.

“This is really the first sit-down to talk about where we go from here,” Georgitis said.

In addition to the possibility of using some remaining portion of the the 3-acre for housing, Gould may be interested in adding businesses to the grainery building itself that would be “complementary” to an adjacent train stop. Exactly what those uses might be was not specified, but Georgitis noted that the existing businesses are grandfathered, as the property has more recently been zoned for residential uses only.

That means the public has likely not had its last say on the project.

“Getting that site rezoned will require an act of Congress,” Georgitis said, “and in this case, an act of Congress means town meeting.”

Gould said he hopes that in return for a lease of $1 per year for a set number of years — likely five or 10 — he can secure a contract zone, or other zoning amendment that will allow him to still build some form workforce housing he had initially planned for the remaining 2 acres of the property.

But one hang-up is what comes after that lease. As Baldwin noted, one rumor has been that the lease period would culminate in the town buying the platform and parking area. As late as Monday, March 12, Georgitis was declining to say whether that lease would include an option to buy after a set time, or a requirement to buy.

“After five years, what happens? I’m for this, but as a taxpayer, that’s what I want to know,” said Sea Road resident Lionel Menard.

“I think that’s part of the process that we have to work with David (Gould on) to decide what comes after five years,” Georgitis said.

“I don’t know any way to answer that question other than to say I am trying every way I possible can to make this work,” Gould said.

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

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