A TOUR OF AUGUSTA: Capital City officials looking for "renaissance"
(from Manie Townsman, September 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

As Bill Bridgeo sees it, the City of Augusta is at a unique point in its 200 year-old history. Poised to undergo a "real renaissance" is how he phrases it. So sure is he of this, Bridgeo has returned to his home state, after an absence of 11 years, as Augusta's new city manager to help make it happen – and not just not for the 20,000 plus residents of the city, but for the one million plus residents of the state.

In Bridgeo’s mind, the City of Augusta - being the seat of state government - belongs to all Mainers, not just those who live in Augusta. And, as such, Augusta should "shine", should be a "source of pride" for everyone, says Bridgeo, recalling the days when as a kid growing up in Caribou, it was exciting to visit Augusta.

That some of the "shine" has since come off the capital city, is no secret. Stacks of reports and plans and master plans to restore that shine attest to that fact. As does the fact that many state workers choose not to live in the city where they work, despite its largely unspoiled natural features and historical character, but in surrounding towns. Some say it is due to the high taxes associated with being a service center; others say it is due to the falsely negative reputation of the city’s schools.

As Bridgeo sees it, "Augusta is a "complex and contradictory city". It’s a city that both benefits and is burdened by the presence of state government. It’s a city with a population of 60,000 by day and 22,000 at night. It’s a city that welcomes business and tourists, who strangle it with traffic. It’s a city that is a complex mix of low, middle and upper income families. It’s a city of new development, old buildings, and a deteriorating infrastructure.

So why does Bridgeo think Augusta is poised to undergo what he calls a "real renaissance?" There are several reasons, says Bridgeo, focusing on the two he is most intimately connected with since taking office earlier this year. There is a new city council in place that is, under the leadership of Mayor John Bridge, committed to moving beyond the contentious past of its predecessor. And there is what he calls the "fresh partnership" between the City of Augusta and the State of Maine that surfaced during the recent negotiations that produced the Edwards Dam (removal) Agreement.

And what will a renaissance produce? Specifics gleaned from talks with Bridgeo, Mayor John Bridge, and Community Services Director Jeff Zimmerman, who presides over the city’s parks, pathways and green spaces, include the following:

• A bustling Kennebeck River waterfront in the downtown which is home to recreational, cultural and water-dependent economic activities.

• A third bridge across the Kennebec River to alleviate traffic jams brought on by the fact that six major arteries converge in the city, which has been unable to make changes in its traffic patterns in 50 years, despite a huge growth in volume.

• A first-class school district that creates an environment where people want to raise their families and that serves as the foundation for the city’s economic development and a model for the rest of the state.

• A web of hiking and biking trails that link the city’s residential neighborhoods to its unique natural resources and outdoor recreation areas.

• The beautification of the numerous "gateways" to the city in concert with the private sector.

"The most attractive and livable state capital in the nation" is how Community Services Director Jeff Zimmerman sums it all up.

But if restoring the "shine" on Augusta is to come about, if a renaissance is to occur in Augusta, it will only come about through "partnering" with the city’s stakeholders, say all three, stressing that the city’s stakeholders include not only the people and businesses and organizations that reside in Augusta but everyone who resides in the state of Maine.

"If we are going to restore the shine; if we are going to make Augusta the most attractive and livable state capital in the nation; if we are going to fulfill our expectations, we are going to have to do it together" appears to be the mantra moving Augusta forward these days. A corollary that mantra would be "What is good for the City of Augusta is good for the rest of the state".

That said, the remainder of this article attempts to provide those attending MMA’s 62nd Annual Convention with a brief "tour" of some of the strategic sites and strategies that figure into "restoring the shine" that should come with the historic seat of state government, beginning with the City Center.

CITY CENTER

A metaphor for one of the city’s contrasting images, a collection of the old and the new, City Center includes the Augusta City Hall as well as Fort Western. Located on the east side of the Kennebec, it can be reached by crossing the Father Curran Bridge. The current City Hall was built in 1988; Fort Western was built in 1754 to secure the region for the British against the French and the Indians. Turned over to the city in 1922, the Fort was refurbished the year after the current city hall was built. The settlement, which grew up around the Fort, expanded into the City of Hallowell , from which the town of Harrington split off in February 1797, renaming itself Augusta in June 1797. Standing on the balcony off the city manager’s office, one has a clear view of the Kennebec River, the downtown district, as well as the State Capitol across the river.

There is a renewed sense of stability and focused energy permeating the halls and offices of the Augusta City Hall these days. In addition to "an aggressive, take charge, direct, high energy new city manager" (as described by Mayor Bridge), there is a new city council. As a result of changes to the Augusta city charter in 1988, five of the seven council members and the mayor could not run for office again in 1997.

And as the charter undergoes its decennial revision in 1998, there are several proposals directed towards further stabilizing the council. One proposal would lengthen the term of office to three years. Another would stagger the terms so as to create institutional memory and prevent the complete turnover of the council in a single election. Another would increase the council by one allowing for an odd number of council members. And another would allow the mayor to vote on all matters, in contrast to the current charter, which only allows the mayor to vote when there is a tie.

While municipal charters can create the machinery that provide for stability and continuity of a city council, it takes strategic planning to focus the energies of a city council. As Augusta Mayor John Bridge sees it, a good planning process has the power to unite not only a council, but the people of a city. As such, with the assistance of planning consultant Frank O’Hara, the council, staff, and representatives from the business community and state government recently met to develop what Bridge calls a "Framework of Goals" for the council.

After adopting a "conceptual" vision (see sidebar) and identifying potential projects to make the vision a reality, the council targeted 14 projects as priority items and asked the city staff to develop action plans for adoption by the council early this fall. At this point in time, the priority projects include, but are not limited to, the building of the third bridge, promotion of the downtown business area, development of a capital riverfront improvement district, enhancement of Augusta’s neighborhoods, the hiring of a community developer, the construction of a new high school, and the development of a plan for the so-called Mt. Vernon "gateway" to the city.

STATE HOUSE

Located on the east side of the river across from City Hall. It wasn’t until 1827 that Augusta was made the state capital. When Maine became a state in 1820, Portland was chosen as the temporary seat of government. On June 6, 1827, 34 acres known as Weston Hill were purchased by the state for the future site of state government. Construction was begun in 1829 using granite quarried from Hallowell. Construction took three years and cost $139,000. In 1909 the building was doubled in size and a dome topped with a statute, representing the City of Augusta was added.

'Combative’ is often the word that is used to describe the historic relationship between City Hall and State Government. For good reason, some might say, given the fact that state workers clog the city's major arteries in their daily commute to and from work, given the fact that more than $100 million in state government buildings are exempt from property tax, given the seeming indifference by the state to local concerns, given the fact that local legislators are left out of the loop on state government projects.

But all that appears to be changing. In the first four months since becoming city manager, Bridgeo reports that he has had an "impressive number of meetings with and tremendous access to Governor King and his senior staff." When asked what he attributes the change to, he speculates that it was spurred by the Edwards Dam negotiations that came to a head as he was "climbing on board". He knew it wasn’t business as usual when the Governor attended a meeting of the city council to advocate for the project. As chief negotiator for the city during the negotiations, it helped that he was paired up with an old colleague State Planning Office Director Evan Richert. "It was a lucky happenstance," says Bridgeo, adding that the two of them "were able to speak openly amidst all the external pressures associated with the negotiations."

The Edward’s Dam Agreement has the City of Augusta and the State of Maine working cooperatively for the redevelopment of Augusta’s riverfront and more importantly for the general improvement of the city as a whole. Included in the cooperative agreement, the State of Maine agrees to the following:

• Assist the city in obtaining more than a half million dollars in Community Development Block Grant monies to develop a park on the former dam site.

• Provide a senior planner to assist the city manager for an average of two days per week over a period of two years, starting in the fall of 1998, in efforts to redevelop the Augusta riverfront, including assistance in writing grants and attracting tourist and other river-oriented businesses to the riverfront.

• Pursue the joint establishment and maintenance of a Capital Riverfront Improvement District (see below) "for the mutual benefit of both the State of Maine and the City of Augusta."

State Planning Office assistance aside, there’s also been great support from Augusta’s four legislators, including House Speaker Libby Mitchell. And there’s a plan for a city-funded "Legislator’s Ombudsman" to better link them to the city and to each other, Bridgeo told the TOWNSMAN.

Another area in which the City of Augusta and the State of Maine have held serious discussions since Bridgeo's arrival four months ago is the Augusta school system - on making it tops in the state.

Bridgeo is passionate when it comes to education. It’s not surprising given a background that includes: (1) when he was 15, his family left Maine for Massachusetts in search of better schools; (2) his mother is a teacher and he is married to a teacher; and (3) he worked most recently in New York state, where he reports that not only does the state pay for 60 percent of all capital construction, it generally puts a lot more funding into schools than does Maine.

As Bridgeo sees it, Augusta is in a Catch-22 situation. It is not eligible for state funds for a badly needed new high school because it is not overcrowded. But it is not overcrowded because state workers choose to live in surrounding communities where there are newer school systems. Bridgeo passionately believes that a partnership with the state to create such a system would serve as a model for the rest of the state. "People outside the city have got to believe that what happens within is to their benefit," says Bridgeo.

THE RIVERFRONT

The Kennebec River. It’s the reason Augusta is where it is. At the head of the tide. It was as far as you could go up the river in a boat. In recent history, it’s had many uses: transportation, sewage disposal, logging drives, and most recently the generation of electricity. The Kennebec was once home to all ten species of anadromous (sea run) fish native to Maine, including the Atlantic salmon, American shad, Atlantic sturgeon and striped bass: The Edwards Dam, built below the head of tide in Augusta in 1837, destroyed these fisheries because it blocked access to upriver spawning areas. And industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century created severe pollution. But with the cleaning up of the river and this year’s order to remove the dam, an act that will open up 17 miles of historic upstream spawning habitat, the river is ready for its own "renaissance" and with it that of the City of Augusta.

As noted above, with the signing of the Edwards Dam agreement, resources, both technical and fiscal, became available to redevelop the Augusta riverfront. Under the terms of the agreement, signed in May of this year, the owners of the dam are pledged to donate $100,000 to the City of Augusta to be used toward the master planning and development of the area and the State is pledged to provide the services of a senior planner to the city for an average of two days a week over a period of two years.

Among other things, the planner will assist the city in establishing a "Capital Riverfront Improvement District", a joint project of both city and state government. There is also the possibility, with state support, of $500,000 in future funding from the federal government in the form of a Community Development Block Grant set aside.

Looking out at the Kennebec recently, the city manager attempted to describe to the TOWNSMAN the area that would be encompassed by the Riverfront Improvement District and the kinds of activities anticipated.

The district would run south from the dam down both the east and west side of the river. On the west side it would include the downtown business district as well as the capital complex; on the east side it would include the "old" City Hall, as well as the historic Kennebec Federal Arsenal (1828) and the Augusta Mental Health Institute (1840).

Hiking and biking trails, down both sides of the river are now in the making. There is talk of developing the imposing granite Arsenal buildings and its waterfront into everything from a museum to a restaurant, to a marina, to a yacht club, to an inn. There are plans to redevelop the old city hall into a senior citizen residence. The possibilities are endless. The potential is great.

As Bridgeo sees it, if the Capital Riverfront Improvement District becomes a reality, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t, it could serve as a model for a multitude of pilot projects for state and local cooperation, especially for municipalities that serve as so-called service centers.