BELFAST – Jimmy Roberts and Lewie Baker fought political battles side by side for years.
Not any longer.
The two men, who live within a stone’s throw of each other on the heights and shadows of Patterson Hill and served together on city committees and boards, now are at odds with each other.
In what will be somewhat of a rerun of the election two years ago, they are squaring off once more in a match to represent Ward 5 on the City Council.
Roberts won the last round, emerging from a four-person field as the top vote-getter in the 2004 race and is now standing for re-election on a record of compromise and planning. Baker is back for another shot at the seat and is taking the same pro-growth stand he has in the past.
If anyone in the city is wishing for a referendum on big-box stores, the Baker-Roberts race is the one to focus on.
Where Roberts is adamantly opposed to stores in the range of 200,000 square feet, Baker is actively campaigning to get one to locate in the city. The city has a 75,000-square-foot size cap for retail stores, and Baker wants it removed.
“It’s just a difference in philosophies,” Roberts said. “We just see things differently now.”
Baker said that while he was dismayed with Roberts’ change of heart, he still considers him a friend.
“We come from somewhat similar situations here, but we somehow find ourselves 180 degrees apart. And I don’t know how that happened,” Baker said. “It upsets me. I don’t know why we’re not working together on this.”
Besides the Roberts-Baker race, Roger Lee is unopposed for a council seat from Ward 2.
Many of Ward 5’s residents go back generations. Although some newcomers have made inroads along the ward’s higher ground and waterfront, the area is primarily working class or fixed-income retirees. The city’s largest mobile home parks are in Ward 5. Baker and Roberts have lived in the ward most of their lives.
Although Baker carried the ward in the last election, Roberts emerged the winner by appealing to the city’s more affluent voters across the Passagassawakeag River. Roberts insisted he was not abandoning his roots, but rather reaching out to the entire community.
“I’m for compromise,” Roberts said. “When I was younger I took things for granted and never saw things differently. As you get older and travel around, you see what you’ve got. I want to keep what we’ve got here and I believe a big-box store would devastate this community.”
Roberts served on the retail review commission that was formed to investigate shopping opportunities. The committee recommended that the city retain its 75,000-square-foot cap for retail stores while leaving the door open to review proposals for larger developments.
“This issue is so evenly divided that I don’t want to see this town fighting again and again over it,” Roberts said. “Let’s keep our options open. Let’s talk to them, and let the council try and work with it.”
Baker said the major flaw in that position is that no developer will set foot in Belfast so long as the size cap remains on the books.
He said where Belfast once had its smaller, Ames-type department stores, it missed out on the transition to the larger stores of today because its economy had collapsed in the 1980s when the city’s poultry processing plants, shoe and textile factories shut down.
“We need a department store and I don’t think there is a single company that will come here except for a large one,” Baker said. “We’ve leapfrogged to the next generation of store. The large stores, that’s how they sell products at competitive prices. There are no 50- to 75,000-square-foot stores being built in Maine, not in towns our size.”
Roberts suggested that rather than look to big-box stores for survival, the city would be better off continuing its investment along the waterfront.
He described the waterfront as the gem of the city and said the council had to be vigilant about maintaining the many improvements, such as the new bridge, it had supported over the years.
“The waterfront is going to be our key drawing card,” Roberts said. “We have to make sure that we take care of what we have down there. We have something here that most people don’t have.”
Baker agreed that the downtown and waterfront have become major tourist attractions with an appealing mix of parks, shops, restaurants, arts and boating. He said he is a strong supporter of continuing that kind of development in the city.
He stressed, however, that there needs to be more to economic growth than tourist attractions. He said a department store would provide jobs for the city’s working class, add to the tax base and boost the overall economy.
When asked if that meant Wal-Mart, Baker replied, “That’s the only thing I can find. The problem is a lot of people who don’t want it believe all the negative things they’ve been told,” he said. “The reason that I ran for the council was that was that [the council] wouldn’t put a question on the ballot to have shopping on Route 3. If you don’t put it on the ballot, how do you know how the people think?”