BELFAST – It’s not visions of dancing sugarplums that keep Mayor Michael Hurley awake this Christmas season.
It’s the heady times ahead.
The city is in the middle of an unprecedented economic and cultural boom that has Hurley, other city officials and residents scrambling to keep pace with the rampant progress. From one end of the city to the other, the good times and their hectic pace are the major topic.
“These are fantastic times for Belfast,” Hurley said on Christmas Eve. “It’s never been this good for a century, and the challenge facing all of us is the importance of preserving what we have while allowing for planned growth.”
Rather than look to the coming year with trepidation, Hurley is anxious to deal with the numerous big ticket items facing City Hall. What in other years would be ridiculed as an improbable wish list, the projects on the city’s drawing board this year figure to become reality.
The list is staggering.
Starting with the planned $1 million renovation of the century-old City Hall, the list includes the $300,000 conversion of a former bank into a police station, the partnership with Waldo County in a $600,000 emergency communications center, the $100,000 renovation of the Boathouse at Steamboat Landing, a total of $100,000 in improvements at the public landing and ongoing plans to preserve the city’s elementary schools and the footbridge spanning the Passagassawaukeag River.
And the surprising thing is – the city has the financial wherewithal to tackle all of them during the coming year.
“All of these things are expensive, but they need to be done,” Hurley said. “In City Hall, we’re under orders to provide access to the handicapped. To do that we have to relocate offices so we can renovate. To find that space we have to move the Police Department out of City Hall and into the new police station. Hopefully, we’ll get these things done and we won’t have to worry about them for a long, long while.”
Hurley credited the arrival of MBNA New England with the city’s recent turnaround. MBNA is the country’s largest credit card company, with assets of more than $80 billion. Included in that tabulation is the more than 400,000 square feet of offices and ancillary buildings the company has located in Belfast over the past five years. MBNA has more than 2,000 employees in Belfast and expects to double that figure within the next three years.
“People complain about their taxes, but we have a lower tax rate than Rockland and Searsport,” said Hurley. “You’ve got to believe that MBNA has picked up a fair percentage of the overall tax burden in Belfast.”
Earlier this month, MBNA broke ground on a 46-unit apartment complex that is designed to help alleviate the city’s housing crunch, a crunch brought on in large part by the company itself. More housing projects are expected to be unveiled within the coming months.
In creating employment opportunities in Belfast, MBNA also created opportunities for other businesses. The city has seen a score of businesses arrive spurred by MBNA’s putting down roots.
As a result, one of the bigger issues confronting the community is the sudden interest being shown by so-called big box stores. The notification of Wal-Mart’s intention to locate a Supercenter in the city prompted the City Council to enact a moratorium against big boxes pending a revision of the city’s zoning protocols.
“We are looking at a lot of growth, and it’s critical that we do it right,” Hurley said. “It’s really important that 20 years from now that Belfast is still the same town that we’re happy with today.
“Big boxes are going to be continually debated.
But let’s face it, it’s not whether they are coming to Belfast. It’s how they are going to look when they get here,” he said. “I look for that debate to heat up dramatically as we enter the New Year.”
Along with the hot-button growth and spending issues, Hurley also finds himself fending off queries about the future of the Belfast Bearfest. Hurley organized the popular tourist attraction of last summer, which placed a decorated life-size bear replica on every downtown street corner. The event lured thousands to the city, and many people wonder whether the bears are in hibernation or if they have left town forever.
“We’re not sure, but there are a lot of people out there looking to make sure there’s a bigger and better Bearfest next year,” Hurley said. “One thing I know is that no matter what their issue, from big boxes to the waterfront to the Belfast Bay Festival to the Bearfest, everybody in the city is fired up.
“They all want their thing to happen, and that just makes for an exciting town,” he said.