2017-11-01 / Business

Q&A

... with Brunswick Economic Development Director Linda Smith
BY JOHN SWINCONECK
Times Record Staff


BRUNSWICK ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR LINDA SMITH at Station Avenue on Brunswick, as seen recently. 
JOHN SWINCONECK / THE TIMES RECORD BRUNSWICK ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR LINDA SMITH at Station Avenue on Brunswick, as seen recently. JOHN SWINCONECK / THE TIMES RECORD BRUNSWICK

Part 1 of 2

Linda Smith began her role as Brunswick’s economic development director in 2014. In heading that department, she promotes the town as a place to live, visit and to do business. Her department facilitates capital investment, job creation, business activity and the property tax base. Smith also serves as a liason between the town and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the agency charged with overseeing the conversion of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station to civilian use.

In this first part of a two-part interview, Smith discusses why 2016 was such a pivotal year for the town of Brunswick, parking in the downtown, the future of the Frank J. Wood Bridge and why attempts to lure online giant Amazon to town aren’t as crazy as they seem.

The Times Record: In terms of economic development, what does Brunswick have going for it?

Linda Smith: I look at before and after 2016. From my perspective, 2016 was when we shifted from hoping we were going to build enough momentum for things to be going well to, “Oh, they’re going well and now we have to deal with the consequences of success.”

In 2016 we had CEI move to their corporate headquarters (on Federal Street). Summit Realty Partners became a managing partner for Cook’s Corner. We had Wayfair come to town. We got to zero vacancy for first-floor retail rentals on Maine Street. The big, vacant building that Arrowhart had been on Cressey Road — 186,000 square feet — was sold to U-Haul and became occupied. That’s not even talking about the smaller, good things that happened at Brunswick Landing that same year.

There’s perception that you’re doing well that helps you to do well. That year gave us a really solid footing. I think we raised expectations with the Wayfair project and I had people asking me if we were going to put in a proposal for the Amazon headquarters, too. So, I talked with (Mid Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority Director) Steve Levesque at Brunswick Landing. And we’re going to put in a proposal. We know that the competition is so stiff. And what we’re willing and able to offer is probably not competitive. But the thinking is, just putting something in front of them — if there’s another, smaller project down the road, we’ve perhaps gotten on their screen.

TR: They’re looking for a place with a public transportation infrastructure, close to an international airport?

LS: The hardest part is they’re looking for an employee base of 50,000. Trying to supply that workforce, I suspect, would be the thing that disqualifies us. If we throw something in the mix, perhaps, if they end up in the New England area — Boston’s going after them pretty aggressively — we’re not that far for them to think about us.

I do think we’ve raised people’s aspirations with that Wayfair recruitment effort.

TR: As you say, there are consequences to success. Let’s talk about parking and why I have a heart attack every time I try to back out onto Maine Street. What can be done about that?

LS: Brunswick does a good job in planning for change. Parking is a two-, three-year fix. It wasn’t a pressure point until this last year, even though people have talked about parking on and off for 20 years. The town has been talking with Maine Department of Transportation about the Cedar Street lot they own and maybe making that into a park and ride and longterm parking addition.

(Portland bus service) Metro Breez is a good thing that will be brought into the mix. We’ve got Brunswick Explorer, Boston and New York (bus) express and the train. The Downeaster is talking about five round trips a day in spring of 2018. That Cedar Street lot could make a big difference in expanding parking.

Brunswick Development Corporation owns a parcel on Weymouth Street, and there’s conversation as to whether we can add parking there.

There’s also the concept of a parking deck, but there’s dollars that go with that and it’s unclear whether there’d be federal funding. I think that’s pretty far out there. Parking decks, if you build it well, you’re looking at five-to-six or seven million. That’s just beyond the scope of anything we would do without another partner, probably a federal grant partner.

TR: You’ve got a vibrant Maine Street and downtown. One of the chief access points is the Frank J. Wood Bridge. Passions are running pretty high over its future how do you work forward through that? Can you make everybody happy?

LS: I don’t know that you can make everybody happy. I’ll own my bias — when I evaluate something like the bridge I’m looking at how much downtime during construction are we going to have that impacts our businesses. In black and white, what’s the parallel costs? From my perspective, the cost for rehabilitation and the downtime are sufficiently high enough that I’m a proponent of the (MaineDOT’s) preferred alternative, which is the upstream realignment.

I understand people’s passion when it comes to losing something. It’s very easy, after the fact, for us to go, “Oh, how could we have let that go?” So I get it.

We’ve been in discussions with Topsham to make this preferred alternative look more like a town bridge than a highway overpass. I think folks have done a pretty decent job. When I see the renderings and when I get to see the Cabot Mill for the first time, that’s a powerful visual positive.

I don’t know about making everybody happy. When the advisory committee released its report, it got a lot more people saying this is looking good than those who said “not in our lifetime.”

Advisory Committee Chairman Bruce Van Note said hopefully we can work as two communities, so that, 90 years from now, people will be as reluctant to see this (new bridge) go away as they are seeing the Green Bridge go away.

IN PART TWO NEXT WEEK, Smith discusses the past and future of the east Brunswick shopping centers, the challenges of luring manufacturing to Brunswick and the future of the downtown.

jswinconeck@timesrecord.com

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