PARIS — The author of a strategic plan to revamp the downtown has been told to polish her final study, after selectmen said Monday night that it failed to meet their requirements.
The 67-page document compiled by Sandy Swett has been handed back to her after town officials and residents blasted it for being incomplete and unprofessional.
The study compiles demographic information and interviews with an array of community groups to offer recommendations to revitalize the Market Square region, extending from the Billings Dam Park, to Moore Park and the McLaughlin Gardens.
Instead of endorsing the document, selectmen tabled it, giving Swett another month to correct issues with grammar and substantive content.
Selectman Samuel Elliot said the study lacked depth and overemphasized the arts as a panacea to the town’s struggles.
“This is no longer the age of Michelangelo,” Elliot said.
Many of the conclusions drawn are overblown, while others are undeveloped, he said.
“I thought part of this was attracting businesses … this never quite gets to that,” he said.
Robert Wessels said the study lacked professionalism, noting it failed to delve into parking issues, had an inconsistent format and contained outright false information.
“It doesn’t meet my expectations in its current form,” Wessels said. “We’ve paid a lot of money for it and it should be a document we can be proud of.”
According to Swett, goals included sparking a resurgence in community involvement, revitalizing the town’s downtown and alleviating the tax burden residents feel by attracting eclectic small businesses.
“It’s made a lot of people aware Paris wants to do something. They’re interested in listening,” she said. “You can’t rent (buildings) to True Values.”
Impetus for the study surfaced in the fall of 2013 after a group of business owners concerned about the growing tax levy on residents formed the South Paris Revitalization Forum, meeting periodically to brainstorm ways of stimulating commerce.
A business owner herself, Swett, 60, renovated the old Paris Fire Department, relocating a sign-making business she operates with her husband. Before moving to Bridgton, Swett lived in Kentucky, where she completed a similar revitalization study for the town of Stanford.
After meeting with town officials, selectmen commissioned Swett to complete the study to the tune of $8,500. The town has already paid $3,700 for the work.
Work began in June, when Swett started going door to door to interview community groups, asking residents for input and ideas. The process has included two public hearings.
The recommendations, which are based upon interviews and data analysis, suggest a variety of methods to spruce up the downtown visually while offering expanded recreational opportunities, cultural and artistic events, and easing traffic patterns to promote a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.
“We will be making social change in our area with an investment in community pride supporting the arts, drama, history and improving literacy,” Swett wrote.
Arguably the most clamored-for recommendation involves developing a trail system along the Little Androscoggin River, connecting the Billings Dam Park, Moore Park and another, new park town officials would like to build at the old headquarters of the Paris Utility District, according to Swett.
It also calls for assuming ownership of the Mildred Fox School on East Main Street and turning the building into an arts center, fixing sidewalks, posting signs alerting motorists to the historic downtown and installing bike lanes.
The study also recommends adding a new layer to the Planning Board’s review to ensure new buildings or changes to historic ones meet architectural standards of downtown.
Some of the proposals are short-term, such as bike lanes and beautification, and could likely be accomplished under the current funding schemes. Others, such as building trails and a new park are long-term and will likely prompt future conversations over the structure of the town’s budget.
Resident Robert Jewell called it a “pie in the sky” and questioned whether town officials had a clear vision.
“If you’re doing economic development from this document you’re not going to get much,” Jewell said.
Jewell, a business owner, said he wouldn’t bring his business to town based on the study and questioned whether it met the obligations stipulated by the town.
“I hope there’s going to be some accountability,” Jewell said.
Town Manager Amy Bernard defended the study, arguing its flaws were superficial and easily tweaked with footnotes supporting her ideas.
Swett said she reviewed the document prior to submission, but admitted in past experiences on studies the compiled information was passed to another company to polish.
“There’s a lot of really strong points,” she said.