Council Again Defers TIF Decisions

LACONIA — After convening a special meeting to consider authorizing a borrowing to undertake a series of projects recommended by the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District Advisory Board the City Council last night again deferred its decision.

Presenting the menu of projects, Kevin Dunleavy, director of parks and recreation, reminded the council it had already approved spending $275,000 to improve the gateway to downtown at the Main Street Bridge, in order to ensure that the improvements were incorporated into the design for the reconstruction of the bridge. Likewise, in October the council approved spending $35,000 to extend a ten-inch water main from Main Street to Veteran's Square to service the former Evangelical Baptist Church, which is being converted to restaurant.

Dunleavy told the council the board recommended investing $400,000 to extend the WOW Trail between Main Street and Fair Street, $25,000 to add signage and kiosks to the riverwalk and WOW Trail, $181,000 to connect the Main Street Bridge to the riverwalk at the Landmark Inn, $121,800 to extend the riverwalk through the Walgreen's property, and $300,000 to carry the riverwalk from behind the old police station up to the Church Street bridge. Altogether the estimated cost of the projects, including the Gateway Plaza and water main, totaled $1,337,800.

Dunleavy said that the board decided to shelve its earlier recommendation to spend $200,000 on a pocket park where Water Street, Pleasant Street and Main Street come together downtown.

The projects would be funded by borrowing $1,350,000 against the annual revenue to the TIF account at an estimated interest rate of four-percent over 20 years. The TIF account has a current balance of $311,353 and projected revenue of $173,687 in 2014 and an additional amount each year thereafter for a total of $4,250,212 during the next 20 years. When the debt is retired, assuming no further borrowing, the TIF fund would be left with a balance of $2,811,654. City Manager Scott Myers has assured the council that the revenue accruing to the TIF fund is sufficient to service the proposed debt and, within a reasonable time, support another borrowing.
Alan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail, told the council that with the $400,000 he was confident that his organization could raise the $200,000 required to construct the second phase of the trail, from Main Street to the Belmont town line, in 2014.
Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) said that although "the purpose of the projects is to revitalize downtown, I haven't heard one word about revitalizing downtown. The WOW Trail will not revitalize downtown," she continued, doubting the findings of an economic impact study, which she said relied on the effects of similar trails in "upscale areas." Baer questioned applying $400,000 in TIF funds to the WOW Trail.
"I beg to differ," countered Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3), who stressed that the projects would attract people downtown, which is the essence of revitalization. "To throw a wet blanket on it is not consistent with why we're raising the money," he said.
"I'm not throwing a wet blanket on it," replied Baer, who expressed her support for the WOW Trail.
"The WOW Trail is a city park," interrupted Councilor Matt Lahey (Ward 2), who added that like the recent project at Laconia High School it was a successful private-public partnership.
When Baer said that the overriding question is "what do we want downtown?" Lahey replied flatly "people," which projects like the WOW Trail and riverwalk would bring to the center of the city.
Lipman questioned the wisdom of investing in segments of the downtown riverwalk on the south bank of the Winnipesaukee River before the pathway along the north bank is complete. In particular, he said that the segment running through the Walgreen's property "doesn't go anywhere" because those to either side of it are not yet on the construction schedule. Dunleavy pointed out that Walgreen's contributed $25,000 to engineer the project and indicated the city may be obliged to draw those funds within a specific time or forfeit them. If that were the case, Lipman suggested funding the design and engineering but not the $121,800 in construction costs.
Warren Hutchins, who chairs the Planning Board but emphasized he was speaking as an individual, said he favored all the board's proposals, but urged the council revisit the traffic pattern and flow downtown. Laconia, he remarked, "is the most inconvenient place for a person to navigate."