April 08, 2020

Council shuns slum label> Rockland grant bid would require adverse designation

ROCKLAND — Are the downtown and southern entrance areas of the city composed of “slums and blight?”

Members of the City Council do not think so, even if would mean the city would be eligible for $500,000 in Community Development Action Grants.

At the Monday night council meeting, Community Development Director Dake Collins suggested that the city apply for grants to improve the southern entrance to the city and the downtown area. The best way to obtain the grants was under the “slum and blight” funding area, Collins told the council.

The same designation was used to get funding for the Samoset Road landslide area, Collins said. In order to conform to federal language in the grant application, the city could apply under the “slum and blight” designation, he said.

If the grant were approved, it would fund a beautification project for the Route 1 area with trees separating the railroad yards from the highway. The project would include a turnout and an information booth. The downtown project would include sidewalk and sewer line improvements in an area on Main Street between Park and North Main streets.

Collins conceded that the slum and blight designation, required by federal guidelines, was “strong words.”

A little too strong for Councilor James Raye.

Raye questioned whether the council was willing to “sell its soul” and insult the city just to get state and federal funds. In the past decade the city has celebrated its transformation from a dingy fishing and industrial area into a new arts mecca with galleries and restaurants springing up on main and side streets. The emergence of the Andrew Wyeth wing of the Farnsworth Art Museum, scheduled to open this summer, will attract thousands of visitors to the transformed city.

“Our downtown area is not a slum and blight area,” Raye said. He admitted that improvements are needed in the southern entrance to the city and the downtown sidewalks are a serious concern. “But calling that slum and blight is a little steep,” Raye said.

Mayor Robert Peabody expressed concern with the “negative spin” such a designation would have on the city. He complimented the city staff for bringing any available grant projects before the council. But it will be up to the council to decide on any grant application.

Brian Harden of the Downtown merchants Association said the harm from the “slum and blight” designation would certainly outweigh any benefits from the grant. “I suspect the owners of those blighted businesses will show up next week to express their concern,” he said.

No final decision was made Monday night. The council will continue the discussions on the grant application at its Jan. 12 meeting.

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