City Council finally approves TIF projects

LACONIA — The City Council last night agreed to authorize borrowing $1,530,000 to finance improvements recommended by the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Board, which includes a segment of the WOW Trail and four stretches of the downtown riverwalk as well as the the Gateway Plaza at the foot of Main Street and a waterline extension to Veteran's Square.

The package includes $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, $164,000 to link the riverwalk from Beacon Street West to the Main Bridge Bridge, $181,000 to connect the Main Street Bridge to the riverwalk behind the Landmark Inn, $121,800 to extend the riverwalk through the adjacent Walgreen's property, and $300,000 to carry the riverwalk from behind the old police station, now studios of the Binnie Media Group, up to the Church Street bridge.

Moreover, the council reaffirmed its decision in August to to spend $275,000 improving the "Gateway Plaza" at the foot of Main Street and in October to spending $35,000 to extend a 10 inch water main from Main Street to Veteran's Square to service the former Evangelical Baptist Church, which is being converted to a restaurant.

Altogether the estimated cost of the projects is $1,530,000, which includes the fees for preparing and selling a general obligation bond and and a small amount for contingencies. The funds would be borrowed 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. 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.

Apart from Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4), who voted against funding the WOW Trail and the Walgreen's section of the riverwalk, all the projects carried unanimously. With only the one dissenting vote, the two-thirds majority of the six councilors that will be required to authorize the sale of general obligation bonds appears assured.

When Mayor Mike Seymour invited comment from the public several speakers questioned the impact of the investment. Gretchen Shortway, a resident of Beacon Street West, said that when she walked downtown "one man asked me for money, another for a cigarette and four teenagers were sitting in front of the Colonial Theatre doing nothing." Expressing support for the WOW Trail and agreeing improvements are needed downtown, she remarked "I just worry about where this money is going."

Shortway was echoed by her neighbor, Marie Macozek, who stressed that without a focus to draw people downtown the impact of the proposed improvements would be diluted. She suggested making more expansive use of the water, perhaps a paddleboat concession offering access to Lake Winnisquam.

Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) explained that the purpose of the TIF is to "enable infrastructure," which is what the WOW Trail and riverwalk represent. He indicated that the public investment is intended to enhance the value and encourage the improvement of surrounding private properties.

"We can only do so much," said Councilor Matt Lahey (Ward 2), noting that the future of downtown will ultimately depend on private investment. He said that he supported the public investment in the WOW Trail because so far volunteers and donors have carried the project. "We should be looking at the folks who have been helping themselves," he said.

By contrast, Councilor Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) pointed out that "landlords downtown aren't doing anything to help themselves. Money is not being invested private buildings."

Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) emphasized that "this is something we can do." He said that his job took him to all corners of the state and commented that "we're not the only community struggling, but we're trying. There's no doubt about that."