Council OKs downtown plan; divided over where to construct new road

16 years ago
    A plan to revitalize the city’s business areas was approved Monday by the City Council by a vote of 5-2, with the dissenting votes apparently cast over a disagreement of how the relationship between the city and the Caribou Chamber of Commerce and Industry should be structured.

In a marathon session that lasted nearly four and one-half hours, the council also debated which route a proposed bypass should take around the city. After an executive session, the council also adopted a wage and classification system that should clear the way for acceptance of a 2008 municipal budget.
According to the city charter, a municipal budget is to be put to a public hearing and approved by the third Monday in March. The next opportunity for budget adoption is April 14, according to City Manager Steve Buck. In the meantime, the city is operating from the 2007 spending plan.
Caribou’s Downtown District Plan, presented for final consideration, details a plan of action to beef up the city’s business district and boost economic development. With its passage Monday, the plan will be submitted to the Maine Department of Community and Economic Development for their consideration and for funding opportunities. To implement the proposed improvements, a $2.9 million estimated budget has been proposed.
During the session, the geographic size of the tax increment financing district was expanded to include south Main Street, the river front area and other business areas, bringing the total acreage up to 635. The length of the TIF, which is a funding mechanism to raise funds for improvements, was changed from 15 to 30 years.
City officials said that the plan was a living and flexible document that included recommendations that would offer guidance as the plan was implemented.
“All the components in this plan have to have the final engineering and design completed,” said Mary Walton, director of community development.
Councilor Doug Morrell said he was voting against the entire plan unless the portion regarding the relationship between the city and chamber is more detailed or stricken from the document altogether.
The plan says that current programs could be enhanced to “better represent and more actively promote” the city’s interests.
“The city’s economic development program and resources should also be more closely tied to the Office of the Community Development, (city) manager, and other city departments’ programs and resources,” said the plan.
“The roles of the city staff and the CCC&I need to be clearly defined as economic development efforts are expanded and an economic development plan is established for the downtown,” the plan said.
In Caribou, the role of economic, or business, development is handled by the chamber, while community development is the responsibility of the city.  There was no one representing the chamber at the Monday meeting.
Morrell said that the document’s recommendation created a gray area, adding that he wanted to know “who’s going to do what.”
In an earlier draft, the plan said that economic development should come under the  “direct supervision of the city.” However, that phrase was deleted and the terminology was reworded in the final draft.
Mayor Miles Williams said that as the plan is developed, the roles will be discussed in more detail and decisions will be made.
“I don’t see a problem with the statement,” said Williams.
City Manager Steve Buck said that there was discussion in 2002 of having a “performance-based contract” between CCC&I and the city. The manager said that the roles need to be defined.
Voting for the plan were Robert Albert, Karla Bell, Miles Williams, Ken Murchison and David Martin.  Morrell and Mark Goughan voted against the plan.
The council voted unanimously to approve the TIF district amendments, which increased the acreage and length of the program.
In other business, the council voted 4-3 to favor what is known as 4A, one of three construction options on what route a proposed bypass should take around the city, connecting Routes 1 and 161.
During a lengthy discussion, councilors debated which route would have the least impact on agricultural land, property owners and business.
Option 4A includes new construction in the vicinity of Otter Street and Mecon Drive, progressing to the east of Cary Medical Center, crossing Route 1 and continuing in a northwest direction until it connects with Route 161 near the Ogren Road on the Woodland-Caribou boundary.
The proposed cost of the project would be $31 million, the most expensive of the three options. It would impact 66 acres, 31 structures and one historic property.
Buck had developed a lengthy document as a tool to help the council in forming their position. With the council’s input, Buck said he plans to prepare a position paper to forward to the Army Corps of Engineers, which in the process of making a decision on which route will be constructed.
“It’s crucial that we select an specific option soon,” said Murchison.
Martin proposed that Option 4A be selected and Bell agreed. Williams also said he would support the option, with some modifications to avoid splitting agricultural fields.
Buck pointed out that federal officials may not favor 4A and another option, 4C, to minimize impact to wetlands.
Albert said he was not ready to support any option, while Morrell said there was no assurance that the project would include a connection to Interstate 95.
“I’m not sure I trust the government,” said Mark Goughan.  “(The Maine Department of Transportation) is going to tell us where it’s going.”
Buck continued to press for comments that he could use in the position paper, which would require final council approval at its next meeting on April 14.
“We need a consensus today,’’ said Williams. “We’ve been beating his around for two and one-half years.”
A member of the audience, James Cyr of Caribou, asked to be heard although the session was not intended to be a public hearing. Cyr, a vocal opponent of the project, said that the Army Corps of Engineers appeared to be interested during a recently public forum in receiving more information and take a “step back.” However, the council seems to be intent on moving ahead.
Voting for the 4A option were Bell, Williams, Murchison and Martin. Against the measure were Goughan, Albert and Morrell.