Apr. 8—Many people in Rome want to get out of a two-decade-old agreement that helped establish a regional business park in Oakland, but others connected to the organization running the park say the town can't leave.
The town of Rome is making a push to be the first of the 24 member municipalities to withdraw from the Kennebec Regional Development Authority, which was established more than 20 years ago and supports the 285-acre FirstPark business park in Oakland.
"The reason why we're here now is to give Rome a choice, not this year, but every year, about what it wants to do about economic development and FirstPark," said Rome resident Dr. Andrew Cook. "If we don't exit now, we will continue to have no choice and it may continue indefinitely."
Cook, who has been Rome's volunteer representative to the development authority's general assembly for the past half-dozen years and is a member of their marketing committee, made 20 minutes of comments during a public hearing Tuesday evening at the Rome Town Hall about the town's effort to withdraw. Cook cited the governing legislation enacted into law in April 1998 and said the current situation is a "magic moment" when Rome can exit.
"A city, town or plantation that is already a member of the authority may vote to withdraw its membership; however, it continues to be legally obligated on any outstanding indebtedness of the authority until such time as all of the indebtedness is paid in full," the legislation reads. "The withdrawal only becomes effective on the date that marks the end of a fiscal year of the authority that is preceded by a full fiscal year in which the income was at least sufficient to pay the indebtedness and expenses of the authority for that fiscal year."
Rome officials believe the town can withdraw effective July 1, 2022, so long as the park does not incur more debt or is no longer in a "break-even" situation.
But attorney Craig Nelson, who is also Farmingdale's representative to the development authority's general assembly and former longtime president, said Rome cannot leave. Nelson who helped draft the legislation, does not believe the development authority is at the point of withdrawal. He said there are other aspects to withdrawing from FirstPark that have not been met, such as getting out of an inter local revenue sharing agreement with Oakland and other expenses.
"The reality is, legally, (Rome) cannot get out," Nelson said.
Rome residents voted 178-75 in favor of withdrawing from the Kennebec Regional Development Authority at its March 12 town meeting. The vote did not count, though, because a warrant with such magnitude is required to have a public hearing. Instead, this week's public hearing preceded to another official town vote scheduled to be held concurrently with the Regional School Unit 18 budget validation referendum June 8. No other towns have made noise about withdrawing, but two Starks representatives attended Rome's public hearing earlier this week.
Rome voters approved up to $7,500 at its most recent town meeting to retain legal counsel during this process. The town has already spent approximately one-third of it. Rome's lawyer is Sally Daggett of Jensen Baird in Portland. If the town again votes to withdraw, the plan is for Daggett and town administration to prepare a letter with supporting documentation to formally request withdrawing.
Since joining KRDA in 2001, Rome has lost $336,071, according to a report published by Cook in Rome's annual town report. The town could pay its social services budget for nine years with that money, and Cook said the town is better off making decisions to use that money on a year by year basis for economic development. The town votes every year on state bond issues, school budgets, town and state expenses, so Cook believes residents deserve the choice of where the FirstPark money goes yearly. For example, it could be used to support FirstPark or for something like improved broadband.
"The whole purpose of us exiting is not because we don't like FirstPark, not because we don't like economic development, we do, all of that stuff," Cook said. "We just would like to have a choice."
FirstPark has a sometimes rocky relationship with its member communities investing in the park by paying down its debt in exchange for a portion of tax revenue. According to a 1998 study by New Hampshire-based RKG associates, the entire investment was expected to be repaid by 2007 and positive returns were expected to begin three years prior.
No dice. The Authority attributes its slow growth to the 2008 Great Recession, Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other economic roadblocks, all things that could not have been anticipated when the legislation was signed.
FirstPark made its final bond payment in November, signaling a potential boost for the 24 member communities. The park also finished 2020 with a $1.9 million sale of a lot. Its largest employer, T-Mobile, is adding 300 workers, but exactly how many of those are recoups from layoffs remain unclear.
Bioenergetic Healing, Gateway Financial Partners, Northern Light Podiatry, L.L.Bean, MaineGeneral, Maine Medical Partners, Maine Eye Doctors, One River CPAs, Waterville Community Dental Center and SurgiCare also own space at the park off Kennedy Memorial Drive, which employs more than 1,000.
Cook credited FirstPark Executive Director Jim Dinkle for his efforts in marketing the park during the pandemic.
Dinkle hopes Rome does not leave the KRDA and is willing to meet with town officials about a possible solution.
"If a community such as Rome, if they don't have confidence in the future growth and success of FirstPark, then maybe they should step away," Dinkle said, "but the fact is they signed agreements 20 years ago... They should feel a lot more confident in FirstPark's ability to attract new businesses."
The 24 municipalities behind FirstPark are Anson, Benton, Canaan, China, Clinton, Cornville, Fairfield, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hartland, Manchester, Norridgewock, Oakland, Palmyra, Pittsfield, Readfield, Rome, Sidney, Smithfield, Solon, Starks, St. Albans, Waterville and Winslow of Kennebec and Somerset Counties.
Nelson said FirstPark reduced assessments to the member communities by approximately 33% this year because bonds were paid off. Towns are getting their assessment back in full this year for the first time. The 24 member communities pay a non-negotiable annual assessment to the KRDA. Assessments are done by taking the total KRDA budget number and dividing by the state valuation of the town. This year is the first year when member towns will get their entire assessment back through a formula via an inter local revenue sharing agreement with Oakland. Rome's 2020-21 assessment was $29,422.
Cook acknowledged Rome would indeed get back its investment beginning this year, but advises the town to pull out. He believes it's in Rome's best interest to pull out now and take a year-by-year approach on its support of FirstPark.
Rome voted to join the KRDA in 1999, by what Cook remembers being a 26-24 vote. As many as seven town residents worked in the park at one time, but Cook said none do now. Rome specifically expressed concern about the KRDA a half-dozen years ago. In 2015, Rome requested a detailed long-term cost and benefit analysis from the KRDA. The KRDA's executive board denied the request. It remains unclear as to when a town could pull out from FirstPark's standpoint.
"What we're going to tell them as far as they're concerned is they're still legally obligated to be a part of the authority," said Nelson, the attorney who helped write the legislation. "As soon as possible, under the law, means they've got to wait, just like everybody else. Strictly from a legal standpoint, I'm not sure if has a lot of meaning."
Steve Monsulick, of Readfield, president of the General Assembly, declined comment for this story.
The town believes they can withdraw this year, continuing a plan to withdraw that began in 2015.
"We've paid in money, we've paid in time and we've been active in making the park more successful," Cook said. "The thing is to give the residents of Rome a choice regarding FirstPark every year."