Augusta on the move . . .

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2003)
by Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer

Bill Dowling has a lot to smile about these days as Augusta’s mayor.

A new Cony High School could be built within four years, replacing an aging school in the heart of the city. The real estate market has heated up, fueled by people seeking relief from stratospheric home prices in southern Maine. A new bridge is rising from the banks of the Kennebec River, promising to remove as many as 7,500 cars a day from clogged Western Avenue. The Marketplace at Augusta continues to add national retailers and draw shoppers from throughout the region. And, for the first time in years, the capital city’s relationship with state government is marked by cooperation instead of conflict.

All signs point to a city on the move, drawing investment and giving residents reason again to take pride in their community.

“There’s a lot going on in this community,” says Dowling, the city’s no-nonsense mayor for four years. “It’s a super place to be right now. Augusta is poised.”

VISIBLE GROWTH

To see Augusta’s progress, one need only look across from the Augusta Civic Center.

Thousands of shoppers a day visit the Marketplace at Augusta, which opened a decade ago with Wal-Mart as its anchor. Stores in the sprawling complex include Staples, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Home Depot and The Gap. Such well-known chains draw shoppers from as far as Belfast and Rockland – each an hour’s drive away. Given the mall’s widespread appeal, Boston-area developer S.R. Weiner & Associates is negotiating with a national department store chain, Kohl’s, to anchor a planned 300,000-square-foot addition.

“It really comes down to just plan numbers: S.R. Weiner tells us this is their premier development in New England,” says Michael Duguay, the city’s director of economic and community development. “This is where we’re picking up a lot of growth.”

The success of the marketplace has fueled other projects. Banks, medical practices and the headquarters for several statewide organizations fill an attractive office park along the entrance to the civic center. The University of Maine at Augusta, just next door, is completing a new union to accommodate greater numbers of students seeking bachelor’s degrees from what once had been a commuter college offering mostly two-year degrees.

 The city’s downtown, just a couple of miles away, also is enjoying renewed interest. A developer from Portland’s Old Port district, Richard McGoldrick, is buying and renovating buildings. Last year, developer Kevin Mattson of Winthrop purchased the towering Key Plaza complex – home to state offices, a Key Bank branch and an investment firm – and a building a block away that once housed a well-known local construction company. Mattson now is giving the building a facelift, in the hope of leasing the property for office space.

The traditional heart of the city now is home to a mix of professional offices and specialty shops on the ground floors, with apartments above. Hoping to extend the traditional day downtown beyond 9-to-5, the city this year convinced the owner of the popular Beale Street BBQ chain to open a restaurant, his third in Maine. At the other end of the street, a local businessman and landlord last year launched Laurias, an upscale restaurant that continues to draw good crowds for lunches and dinners.

On Western Avenue, the main gateway to the city, the Turnpike Mall and Shaw’s Plaza both underwent renovations and filled storefronts with national retailers, reflecting the region’s draw for shoppers. A suburban Boston developer with malls throughout New England quietly has negotiated purchase options on homes and land along Interstate 95, behind The Senator Inn and other Western Avenue businesses. There is talk of creating a shopping center with a large retailer like Target as the anchor, although no formal plans have been made public.

Western Avenue also has become home to some of the largest car dealerships in Maine. Charlie’s Motor Mall and Blouin Motors both expanded and added new brands in the past year. “Major Maine developers view Augusta as a good business opportunity and have been making the private-sector investments that evidence that,” says Bill Bridgeo, Augusta’s city manager for four years.

LOCAL INVESTMENT

The city also has invested in itself. Three years ago, voters approved a $4.3 million bond issue for renovations to the Augusta Civic Center, which this year will host the MMA convention. The money enabled the city to install new bleachers and air conditioning in the auditorium, enlarge the kitchen and add meeting space. The project gave the 29-year-old facility greater capacity to continue accommodating trade shows, conventions and concerts.

“The civic center remains the premier meeting and convention space in the state of Maine,” Bridgeo says.

At the same time they endorsed the civic center project, voters approved a $2.5 million bond issue to improve parking downtown. The money will create a pair of parking decks that are intended to provide convenient parking, within walking distance to most shops, reducing the need to circle the block in search of an elusive space. Construction is scheduled to begin next year.

Recreational opportunities also are growing. A network of volunteers spent nearly a decade raising money and building support among residents and municipal officials for a recreation trail along the Kennebec River. The first leg of the Kennebec River Rail Trail opened last year and now carries dozens of cyclists, walkers and joggers a day along a 3.5-mile scenic pathway between downtown Augusta and neighboring Hallowell. Work on the southern leg of the trail, in Gardiner, is expected to start later this year, giving capital area residents the types of outdoor recreational opportunities normally found in much larger communities.

“It’s been an honor and an exciting opportunity to be manager of the capital city of my home state,” says Bridgeo, a native of Caribou and a former manager of Calais. “I feel particularly fortunate because, notwithstanding some statewide economic difficulties, Augusta has in recent years been moving forward on a number of fronts.”

Construction of a new Cony High School tops the list. In the mid-1990s, Augusta was placed on probation by the national agency that accredits high schools. The agency cited, in large part, the high school’s rundown condition. Realizing that lifting the probation was the key to convincing families to stay in the city, officials began drafting plans and lobbying the state Department of Education to fund a new Cony. Last year, the city learned the project placed 11th on the state’s overall priority list, placing it in line to receive state funding in time for completion four years from now. The Augusta Board of Education recently endorsed the $29.7 million project, and voters in November will be asked to support a local share of $4.5 million.

City leaders believe the high school will help stabilize a service center community where the population in the 1990s dropped by more than 2,000 residents. Many who left settled in nearby bedroom communities with newer schools.

“A high school is a resource for the whole community, in terms of recreational opportunities and cultural opportunities,” Bridgeo says. “It brings your community together.”

Bridgeo and other city officials also are pinning their hopes on a new $36 million bridge across the Kennebec River, north of Memorial Bridge. The Maine Department of Transportation wants to reduce accidents and curb congestion on four-lane Western Avenue and a pair of rotaries notorious for high numbers of accidents. When completed in late 2004, the bridge will link Interstate 95 and state Route 3.

By giving coast-bound travelers a bypass, MDOT estimates the project will reduce traffic in the heart of the city by 20 percent. That is significant in a place where, on busy summer afternoons, traffic crawls along a commercial strip clogged with commuters and tourists.

City officials back the bridge for another reason: They believe it will generate growth. Two years ago, city leaders rezoned the land along the planned bridge route to accommodate office parks and other high-quality projects, knowing that commercial development would follow completion of the bridge. Already, city officials say, the region has drawn interest from the owners of gas station franchises and supermarket chains, even though it currently lacks public sewer and water lines. Already, O’Connor GMC on busy Riverside Drive is growing, not far from the bridge site.

“This is where the opportunities are going to be able to present themselves,” says Duguay, the economic development director.

In the past couple of years, real estate brokers have noticed increasing numbers of clients from southern Maine seeking homes in the capital area. They are hoping to find  relief from Cumberland and York counties, where in some areas the median home price now exceeds $200,000. Less than an hour’s drive north of Portland, buyers can purchase more home for far less money. Such demand, coupled with low interest rates, is driving one of the best real estate markets in more than a decade.

“If you look at the real estate market today, homes are selling for 20 to 30 percent above their taxable value,” Mayor Dowling says. “Augusta is a happening place.”

COOPERATION PREVAILS

A mended relationship between the capital and one of its largest employers – state government – remains one of the keys to the city’s renewed vigor.

For years, the city and state engaged in turf battles. City officials voiced continual resentment over the amount of state-owned and thus tax exempt property in the capital. The city provided police and fire protection to state offices, they argued, but received little in return. They often fought state expansion plans, especially those that encroached on neighborhoods and took properties off the tax rolls.

The state, in turn, often took a condescending view toward the city, considering it more of a whiny nuisance than anything.

The watershed event was the breaching of the Edwards Dam four years ago. City officials and members of the city’s legislative delegation agreed to work with the administration of former Gov. Angus King. Through cooperation, all involved worked out a deal that served everyone’s interests. The city supported the removal of the dam, which had generated a small amount of income for local coffers, in return for the state’s promise of financial assistance in redeveloping the sprawling riverfront site adjacent to it.

“The state has been extremely helpful in the redevelopment of the Edwards Mill site,” Dowling says.

Two years ago, the improved relationship helped the two sides draft an Augusta State Facilities Master Plan that guides growth. Before, such a plan might well have been unilateral – drafted by state government with minimal input from the city. The plan, according to city officials, was fully collaborative. The document allowed for the growth of state facilities in the capital while fully protecting neighborhoods.

In a good-faith gesture, the state agreed to maintain a presence in downtown Augusta, helping the shops and restaurants that depend on office workers for much of their business. All but two floors in the nine-story Key Plaza now house state agencies that include the Department of Conservation and the Bureau of Health.

“I think the result was a final product – that the state is committed to – that has full city buy-in,” Bridgeo says. “It created an atmosphere of hospitality that can only be good for both parties.”

The spirit of cooperation continued with the creation of the Capital Riverfront Improvement District, authorized by the Legislature to preserve the historic fabric of downtown Augusta and promote economic development. The organization consists of eight members from the city and another eight from state government. It was seeded with $250,000 each from the city and state, along with a $500,000 community development block grant.

The CRID’s accomplishments are growing. Since its creation four years ago, the organization has drafted a master plan that offers guidelines for growth along both sides of the river that promote the interests of the city and state government.

The CRID assumed control of the 17-acre former Edwards Mill site, which was cleared after a massive and aging textile mill burned in 1989. The organization recently spent $135,000 to develop a master plan for the site, calling for walking trails and the creation of a recreation area at the riverfront site.

The renewed spirit of cooperation, coupled with increased investment in the city, points to a community on the move.