September 16, 2019

Midcoast panel may try for Pine Tree zone status

A plan to build on economic successes in coastal Waldo and Knox counties is taking shape, acre by acre.

At the urging of Bob Hastings, executive director of the Rockland-Thomaston Area Chamber of Commerce, a panel formed to investigate applying to the state for Pine Tree Development Zone status.

The committee has completed a list of properties that would be included in the zone, if the bid is successful.

The midcoast application lists business properties in Searsport, Belfast, Searsmont, Camden, Rockland, Thomaston and Waldoboro.

The Pine Tree Development Zones, proposed by Gov. John Baldacci and enacted by the Legislature, are designed to offer tax incentives to businesses. The law creating the zones will establish them in Aroostook County, Washington County, the Androscoggin Valley and the Penobscot Valley regions.

Four more zones will be chosen on a competitive basis.

The midcoast bid may be an uphill battle, given the economic success of coastal and Waldo and Knox counties. For the past decade, credit card lender MBNA has spurred employment levels and nudged salaries up in the region.

But Hastings argues there is more to the picture.

“It’s not always what it seems,” he said.

Even in ostensibly upscale communities like Camden, Hastings said, the incomes of 34 percent of residents are at or below 80 percent of the state’s average income, he said.

Similar percentages exist in other communities in the region: Rockland, 49 percent; Belfast, 42 percent; and Searsport, 44 percent.

While unemployment in the region has been low in recent years, “We suffer from a great deal of underemployment,” Hastings said.

For example, many of the workers who lost their jobs at Nautica in Rockland when the company relocated have found new jobs, but are often earning significantly less, he said.

An application for a Pine Tree zone can include up to 5,000 acres. The midcoast application will be significantly less than that, Hastings said.

The towns and properties tentatively listed on the application are:

. Belfast, the undeveloped portion of the city’s industrial parks.

. Searsport, General Alum Corp. and the Mack Point area.

. Searsmont, Robbins Lumber (two parcels) and Sprowl Bros.

. Camden, Tibbetts Industries, the former Apollo tannery and Wayfarer Marine.

. Rockland, the grain silos at Atlantic Point, the former Central Distributors building, the former Bicknell Manufacturing building, the former Bonner Vadter warehouse, and the former Nautica building.

. Thomaston, a proposed industrial park between Route 1 and Old County Road.

. Waldoboro, the undeveloped portions of the town’s business park.

Hastings said four of the five buildings in the Rockland portion of the application have been vacant since he arrived in the area as Chamber director. He said one of those buildings will probably be purchased for a business if the Pine Tree zone is established.

“It’s another tool” for economic development, Hastings said.

And he believes the midcoast’s economic track record may work in its favor.

“We stand a better chance of quick success,” Hastings said, giving the state an example of how the program can work.

Among the benefits to businesses in Pine Tree zones are:

. 100 percent sales tax exemption for building materials and business equipment, beginning in July 2005.

. 100 percent income tax credit for the first five years, followed by a 50 percent income tax credit for years six to 10.

. Employee tax incremental financing equal to 80 percent of employees’ state income tax withholdings for 10 years.

The application is due Jan. 15.

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