With fourth tax deal, MH eyes revitalization

8 years ago

Mars Hill town officials and business leaders are hoping to find ways to use a small amount of seed money to bring new life to their Route 1 downtown.
The town of Mars Hill has signed on off an application to the state government to create a tax increment financing arrangement with McCrum Lands, LLC, a family of business that include County Super Spuds. The arrangement could generate $50,000 for the town over 10 years, while limiting both the business and town’s tax burdens, and would join three other TIF arrangements in Mars Hill going back more to 2000.
“We’re hoping that this will help our business community and in the long-term the community itself,” said Town Manager David Cyr. “If nothing else, the existing businesses that are doing well, we can help them fix up their buildings and success can breed success.”
The TIF deal involves McCrum Lands’ new, state-of-the art potato storage house, which is filled twice a year with potatoes destined for the McCain, Frito-Lay, Cape Cod, Utz, and Penobscot McCrum processors and again for the farm’s seed potatoes. The McCrum businesses employ hundreds in and around Mars Hill, and the new storage house relies on 22 full-time staff earning $14 an hour, according to the TIF application.

Assessed at around $725,000, the storage building has a European air system from a Holland company and is only the second in the U.S. outside of Idaho. “We definitely took a little bit of a risk with the air system,” said Nick McCrum, the farm’s finance and marketing director, who’s been working with the town to craft the application.
If the state signs off on the TIF project, the potato storage facility’s property taxes will effectively be set at a lower rate through 2036, saving approximately $12,000 per year, half of which will be returned to the town as “municipal TIF revenue,” according to the application. The TIF revenue could then be directed towards a range of downtown revitalization investments, including small loans for business renovations.
Since the 1980s, more than 300 municipalities have used TIF projects, including Caribou, Madawaska, Mars Hill and Presque Isle. Some companies’ projects share the tax savings with the town, as in this proposed project, while others may return all the savings to the company or require the local government to invest in infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, as was the case with the Caribou Inn and Convention Center.
The TIF program “helps to shelter some of the effects that an increase in value in Mars Hill would be subject to” following a large business investment, such as additional county taxes and reduced state revenue sharing for education, said Alain Ouellette, director of planning at the Northern Maine Development Commission and a consultant to Mars Hill on the project.
There are restrictions on how municipalities can spend the money, Ouellette explained at a recent hearing on the McCrum project. Mars Hill town councilors had considered directing TIF money toward renovating the town’s highway garage, salt shed and fire station, but the state’s rules on TIFs limit the amount of shared revenue that can go toward local government buildings, Ouellette said.
That’s why the town is set on downtown revitalization, as the state TIF program was intended to serve larger community projects which can also often help leverage other state, federal or private grants that require a “local match,” an investment by the locality. In that case, the $50,000 could end up reeling in as much as $1 million or more for a range of needs, Ouellette said.
“We need seed money. This is an opportunity we can use to leverage,” said Cyr. “We hear a lot about how it was,” Cyr said of downtown Mars Hill. “Money rolled in Mars Hill. Money walked up and down Main Street. You had a clothing store, a jewelry store, a hardware store, a Chevy dealership. There were probably 30 farmers, all of them small.”
Meanwhile, Mars Hill has retained longtime community institutions like the library, Bigrock Ski Area (which is opening a new tubing park this winter), and Al’s Diner on Main Street. And there are ideas and plans for some of the unused downtown storefronts – along with a planned repaving of Main Street and refurbished sidewalks by the Maine Department of Transportation.
In the former and now vacant J.J. Newberry building, Michael Stiggle is planning to open a new brew pub and restaurant called Timberwolves. In a former pizza shop, Tim and Callie Faulkner and Paul and Amy Howlett, are planning to open a new youth community space called Bridges of Hope Youth Center.
“Our goal is to provide a safe place with numerous programs to meet these needs including sports, homework help, tutoring, feeding programs, counseling, life skill building and so much more,” they said.