Growth Council offers options

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NORWAY – The Growth Council of Oxford Hills is preparing to reimburse six towns some of the money invested in a failed technology park at the same time it is preparing to dissolve.

Under the plan, towns will recoup some of their losses from the sale of a 10.5-acre parcel on Pikes Hill originally intended to host the tech park. The Western Foothills Land Trust received the option to buy the additional 150 acres of the site for $310,000.

John Shattuck, executive director of the Growth Council, said $290,000 of the sale proceeds will go toward paying the organization’s mortgage on the property. An additional $12,000 to $15,000 will go toward outstanding vendor costs, such as engineering and architectural services. Shattuck said several thousand dollars would also be devoted to transfer costs such as surveying and legal fees.

“Pretty much that entire $310,000 will be devoted to existing obligations on the property,” he said.

While the land trust has signed a purchase agreement rather than a full transfer of ownership, it has already put down 10 percent of the sale price. The trust is expected to close on the sale in September.

Shattuck said the sale price of the 150-acre parcel has left the remaining 10.5-acre parcel unencumbered by any outstanding costs, aside from property taxes. Profits from the sale of the land would be divided among the towns proportionate to their contributions.

He said the land may be sold by the Growth Council on behalf of the town, or it may be remitted to the six towns who participated in the project.

Shattuck noted how the property has a right of access to the land trust’s parcel and any trails they might put in. He said he believes a group holding onto the property for an extended period of time could make a more profitable sale.

“If they hold off for someone who really sees the value of that, they could do very well,” Shattuck said.

However, he said he doubted that parcel would yield the full $304,000 that was invested by the towns.

Selectman Mark Cyr of Otisfield, which put $192,000 toward the project, agreed that the towns should control the sale of the parcel.

“The preference is for the towns to take over control of their own destiny,” he said.

Mike Thorne, town manager of Harrison, disagreed.

“I think it would only make sense for the Growth Council to market it,” he said. He added it would be easier to have the organization sell the land than coordinating the sale with five other towns.

David Holt, town manager of Norway, said he agreed with the Growth Council’s plan, but is also concerned about what will be put on the parcel.

“I’ve heard a lot of testimony that it should be kept pristine,” he said.

The Growth Council, which serves eight towns in the Oxford Hills region, first proposed the tech park in 1997. The organization abandoned the project in February.

Shattuck said the Growth Council was successful with traditional economic development in the 1990s, then started to invest in real estate after 2000. He said the shift began to consume more resources and divert the Growth Council staff from their original work.

Shattuck, who replaced Brett Doney in December, inherited a difficult real estate situation. The Growth Council currently owns the former Odd Fellows building on Main Street in Norway, which has been under assessment for two months, and a mill property in Bridgton.

Cyr said the towns had been “misguided” in the past, but hoped that the Growth Council would become a positive force.

“I thought that John’s being very upfront and honest about what’s transpired in the past,” Cyr said. “Now we realize that we should probably look to support them in the future.”

Otisfield was among five of the investing towns that denied the Growth Council funds for the next fiscal year. Shattuck said Oxford will support the organization through an economic-development-committee funded tax-increment-financing district, but estimated the total loss to the Growth Council’s annual budget at between $30,000 to $35,000.

“That’s a message loud and clear,” Shattuck said.

Shattuck said the Growth Council plans to dissolve in the fall and join Community Concepts as a new department. The Growth Council board will join Community Concepts as a policy committee.

Shattuck hopes that the council will be able to return to its roots. The plan for its future includes focusing on business retention and expansion, work force development, and infrastructure investment.

“The Growth Council really went off its main path,” he said.

Meanwhile, the land trust continues to move forward with its plans for the tech park property, which it has named Roberts Farm after the family that once operated a dairy farm on the site.

“We’ve been working pretty steadily,” said Lee Dassler, the trust’s program coordinator.

Dassler said the trust is cooperating with Moose Pond Arts and Ecology to prepare marketing materials and will make presentations to local clubs. The trust will also begin leading tours of the parcel from the Lake Pennesseewassee rest stop at 8 a.m. Sundays in August.

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