AT&T asks Skowhegan for temporary spot on town land, but officials reject 'unusual' request

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Jun. 10—SKOWHEGAN — Local officials are torn over a proposal to allow communications company AT&T set up a temporary booth on town-owned property during the summer months.

The Board of Selectmen considered the proposal Tuesday, ultimately voting against the idea after a majority cited an unusual precedent may be set and how other businesses would be at a disadvantage. AT&T asked to use of two parking spots next to the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce building, at 23 Commercial St., for a temporary booth.

"I think we may be setting a precedent that is highly unusual," said Town Manager Christine Almand. "I don't know of any other towns or cities that allow businesses to set up shop in parking spaces on their public properties. I did suggest that they would be better suited in a private property situation."

But board members were split on the issue.

Selectmen Todd Smith and Charles Robbins were in favor of the application, citing that Skowhegan is known for being business-friendly.

"I fear that there are other businesses that may be watching this that are going to refer back to this and say 'maybe we're not wanted here,'" Smith said. "Maybe AT&T is looking for what the vibe of the town is, maybe they're interested in the Run of River project. ... I'm not going to try to guess what their thinking is. But I do believe this is a business considering locating to our town, and we're essentially saying that you're too big, rent a space."

Jason Gayne, executive director of the Skowhegan Regional Chamber of Commerce, said at the meeting that AT&T Mobility was looking to set up a temporary shop during the summer months to gain clients and eventually plan to set up a store front.

Gayne added that the parking spots that would be impacted are on the side of the Chamber of Commerce/Welcome Center and would be used by AT&T on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during June, July, August and September. In total, the company would be occupying the space for up to 42 days, he said.

"What they are trying to do is get clients first because (AT&T) is unknown in this area as far as having service," Gayne said. "And then as they gain clients, they want to have a retail front store in the community. This is one way to get them to have clients and let people know that they're in the area."

Additionally, AT&T has offered free Wi-Fi for those in the downtown area during the summer months. Doing this, he said, would encourage tourists to stop into town to access the signal, potentially bringing more sales to local businesses.

But Chairperson Paul York expressed his concerns for allowing this, saying that it may set a precedent for others trying to start up new business "to see if it's going to work and take off."

He added that this may give others the idea to approach the town, "ask us to set up shop in the parking lot for free all summer to see if their business is going to take off, because their game plan is to start up a store front."

"I don't really see any difference in anyone else doing that versus (AT&T) to approve of them doing it," York said.

Selectwoman Betty Austin was also opposed to the idea, saying that a company as large as AT&T should consider renting a storefront instead.

"This is a large company who could afford to rent a place," Austin said. "We have some small storefronts downtown that they could rent. I just think if they really wanted to do this, they could rent a place. They're a large enough business. I don't know why they can't rent someplace; it's not like AT&T can't afford to rent."

Almand also said that the Parades and Processions application that was submitted by the company may not be the appropriate way for such a plan to be considered and encouraged selectmen to work with the Planning Board to come up with a more concise ordinance.

"I am super supportive and appreciate of all of the businesses that exist in our town; they're all doing the hard work that it takes to create a strong business that we can all be supportive of, which includes some business expenses," Almand said. "I think it's highly unusual to be able to use town property, that is paid for by taxpayers, free of charge in order to do business."

She also suggested housing them at the Skowhegan Welcome and Business Center, but after inquiring, she was told that AT&T would only be afforded two weeks there.

"It could also sets up a disadvantage to their competitors that are already here," Almand said. "Most businesses have expenses when they set up that includes rent, owning a property or subletting from another property for a smaller amount of money for a short-term solution in order to determine whether or not they can make a go at it."

Gayne added that if the town is trying to be more business-friendly, allowing a business like AT&T to come in, potentially gain clients, and possibly become a taxpayer down the line is something that the town should be open to.

"We are trying to become a more business-friendly community," Gayne said. "If you have no clients, and it's a major expense, let's give them an opportunity to try, see if they can gain something, have them open up and become a taxpayer in a business-friendly community."

Additionally, Gayne said, there is no ordinance against this type of operation.

"If you think this is going to become an issue, maybe an ordinance needs to happen, but we're trying to do everything by the book," Gayne said. "This realistically is the opportunity for them to come to town, and I don't see it as a bad advantage. It's giving business an opportunity."

Verizon Wireless, a competitor, is a member of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as AT&T.

Ultimately, the item did not pass, with Smith and Robbins in favor and York, Austin and Staples opposed.